“Secrets of the Little Blue Box”

The 1971 article about phone hacking that inspired Steve Jobs.

Ron Rosenbaum

In 1971, Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article for Esquire about a loose confederation of proto-hackers who built devices—little blue boxes—that could crack phone networks. According the New York Times obituary of Apple founder Steve Jobs, after reading Rosenbaum’s article, Jobs and his partner in founding Apple, Steve Wozniak, “collaborated on building and selling blue boxes, devices that were widely used for making free—and illegal—phone calls. They raised a total of $6,000 from the effort.” The original 1971 article, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” is reprinted below, with permission from the author. It’s also available in Rosenbaum’s collection The Secret Parts of Fortune. Also in Slate: Rosenbaum reflects on the article that inspired Steve Jobs.

A blue box similar to the ones that Jobs and Wozniak sold in the 1970s. A blue box similar to the ones that Jobs and Wozniak sold in the 1970s.

Photograph by RaD man/GFDL/Wikipedia

There is an underground telephone network in this country. Al Gilbertson (I’ve changed his name) discovered it the day after his arrest for manufacturing illegal “blue boxes.” A crime he is not exactly repentant about. I am sitting in the living room of the creator of the blue box. Gilbertson is holding one of his shiny black-and-silver blue boxes comfortably in the palm of his hand, pointing out the thirteen little red push buttons sticking up from the console. He is dancing his fingers over the buttons, tapping out discordant beeping electronic jingles. He is trying to explain to me how his little blue box does nothing less than place the entire telephone system of the world, satellites, cables and all, at the service of the blue-box operator, free of charge.

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