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Exploding the Phone Paperback – February 11, 2014

4.7 out of 5 stars 146 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Sporting a foreword by Steve Wozniak (who, before he founded Apple computers, was a phone phreak himself) and the kind of detailed history that will appeal to the book’s target audience, this isn’t just a story about the early phreaks—the term that combines phone and freak and is used to describe the people who figured out how to fool the telephone system into allowing them to make free long-distance calls. It’s also the story of a giant phone company so desperate to maintain its monopoly that it resorted to outrageously illegal practices and of the war between the FBI and the phreaks, who claimed ripping off the phone company was a form of political protest. Like Ammon Shea in The Phone Book (2010), Lapsley uses his main subject as a jumping-off point for a highly engaging history of the telephone itself and plenty of intrigue. Sure, these guys, these phreaks, were breaking the law, but they were also innovators, technological geniuses, precursors of today’s computer hackers. A fascinating book. --David Pitt --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


An Amazon, Seattle Times, and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year

“Phil Lapsley's Exploding the Phone is an authoritative, jaunty and enjoyable account of their sometimes comical, sometimes impressive and sometimes disquieting misdeeds. . . . The author's love of his subject pervades Exploding the Phone and persuaded this reader, at least, that the phone phreaks are worthy of thoughtful attention.”
Wall Street Journal

“Brilliantly researched.”

“A fantastically fun romp through the world of early phone hackers, who sought free long distance, and in the end helped launch the computer era.”
Seattle Times

“A rollicking history of the telephone system and the hackers who exploited its flaws. [Lapsley] weaves together a brilliant tapestry of richly detailed stories. . . . A first-rate chronicle of an unexamined subculture.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A fascinating book steeped in the rich history of phreakers and hackers.”
—Xeni Jardin, BoingBoing.net

“As a bit of tech history—with themes that resonate today—it can't be beat.

“Long before we ever came onto the scene there was . . . a ragtag group of folks who took the global phone network as the target of their hacking. Exploding the Phone is among the most comprehensive and engaging histories of that community ever published.”
—Electronic Frontier Foundation, “EFF’s Reading List: Books of 2013”

Exploding the Phone is an extraordinary book. . . . To have such a significant, yet underground story captured in such brilliant detail is rare, especially without turning it into a one-sided hero’s tale. Exploding the Phone is nearly perfect. I have three print copies, all paid for and autographed. You can’t have too many miracles lying around the house.”
—Jason Scott

“Eminently interesting and completely original.”
—Daily Beast

“A rocking great read about the unknown teenagers and hobbyists who defied AT&T when it was foolish to do so. In Lapsley's magnificent research he has uncovered what amounts to a secret pre-history of the computer and internet revolutions.”
—Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch

“With terrific reporting and story-telling. Phil Lapsley has put voluptuous flesh and bones on the legendary tales of the phone phreaks.”
—Steven Levy, author of Hackers and In the Plex

"The definitive account of the first generation of network hackers. . . . At turns a technological love story, a counter cultural history and a generation-spanning epic, [Exploding the Phone] is obsessively researched and told with wit and clarity."
—Kevin Poulsen, news editor of Wired.com and author of Kingpin

“At once enjoyable and educational.”

“With verve and technical accuracy, Phil Lapsley captures the excitement of the days when phone hackers explored Ma Bell's cabled paradise of dial phones and electromechanical switches. . . . . Here's the intriguing story of those first electronic adventurers—tinkerers who'd bypass a pay phone with a couple transistors or reach around the world by whistling.”
—Cliff Stoll, author of The Cuckoo's Egg

"A fascinating story about a period of time that I lived through but didn't know much about. I can't imagine how much work Lapsley had to do to write this book—it is remarkably well-researched, fun to read, and deserves great praise."
—Vint Cerf, Internet Pioneer and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google, Inc.

“Before he was the god of sexy computers, Steve Jobs sold blue boxes to Hollywood stars and Bay Area hippies. Exploding the Phone connects the cultural lines that run from hacking Ma Bell to building personal computers. Here, for your amusement, is the story of the frothy counterculture that helped create today’s connected world.”
—Thomas A. Bass, author of The Eudaemonic Pie and The Spy Who Loved Us

"Seldom are criminals this much fun."
—Robert Sabbag, author of Snow Blind

“An extremely interesting and engrossing read.”

“A highly engaging history of the telephone itself and plenty of intrigue.”

"Phil Lapsley's great history of those hackers is packed with schemes, plots, discoveries, and brainy, oddball personalities. . . . [The stories] he uncovers—and the questions he poses, about the nature of the relationship between criminality, curiosity, and technology—is compelling, fascinating stuff."
Portland Mercury

“Lapsley takes up one of the more unusual chapters of the American underground. . . . Lapsley’s knack for detail and his impressive research will have tech phreaks and non-phreaks, well, freaking. . . . It’s impossible to set this book aside. . . . One way or another Exploding The Phone will probably be one of the most talked about books this year.”

Exploding the Phone manages to pull of the seemingly impossible—make one nostalgic for the days of busy signals, operators and rotary dials.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“Always entertaining and clear without being excessively technical . . . a well-documented work of historical value. . . . Highly recommended.”

“Lapsley more than ably conveys the nuances of this fascinating slice of technological history . . . and his enlightening new interviews with most of the major phreaks as well as AT&T security officers form one of the most significant levels of his tremendous research.”
School Library Journal

“Lapsley’s delightful account . . . sheds light on an underappreciated chapter in the history of technology.”

“Phil Lapsley's Exploding the Phone does for the phone phreaks what Steven Levy's Hackers did for computer pioneers, capturing the anarchic move-fast-break-stuff pioneers who went to war against Ma Bell . . . Lapsley is a master storyteller . . . We're moving into an era where every policy fight starts and ends as a fight over how technology should work and who should control it . . . Exploding the Phone is an essential guide to where that fight started, how it's changed, and where it has stayed the same, over more than half a century.”
Boing Boing

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press (February 11, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802122280
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802122285
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.2 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (146 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #338,952 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Neurasthenic VINE VOICE on January 11, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I had not expected to particularly like this book -- I was wary about the subtitle, "The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell," figuring that the story of the early phone phreaks had in fact been told many times, and that if the book cover contained such sensationalism, the content of the book was likely to be of little value.

I was wrong. The material in this book is new, and interesting, and fun, it's written with passion and an understanding of what motivated these early phreaks and what we owe them today (good and bad). The book contains some historical discussion of the development of the phone system, written with as much humor as that topic allows, but it's comprised mostly of the stories of the young men who figured out the vulnerabilities of the system and began to explore and exploit them in the 1960s and early 1970s. (Lapsley's first phreak actually dates to the mid-1950s, which was quite surprising to me, as I had no idea anybody had figured out 2600 that early).

Lapsley devoted years to researching this book, and it shows. He spoke with a large fraction of the players in the early phreaking world, and as he tells their stories, certain patterns become clear to the reader. The early hackers were all high school or college boys, many were blind, they were fascinated by telephones and became familiar with their odd clicks and tones. They then got their hands on the The Bell Systems Journal and began exploring the system. These early phreaks were not primarily interested in making free calls, and many of them objected to Lapsley that they "didn't have anybody to call anyway.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Let me sum up this book in one word, "WOW!" From the first page until the very last I was taken back to my childhood. Even though I grew up in the 80s, past the phone phreaker prime, I fondly remember much of what the author refers to in this book. Growing up in St. Louis, as a young child, I remember the sounds the phone used to make as we dialed long distance numbers. The clicks, clacks and distant "tone" sounds you would here. Living only one block away from the Central Office, it always fascinated me to walk by that big building and wonder just what was going on inside there. How did the telephone really work?

This book takes you through a fascinating history of the Phreakers vs. Ma Bell. You'll find out a lot of what was going on both inside and outside of AT&T during the 60s, 70s and even early 80s. If you are not already familiar with how the telephone system works, you'll be taken on a journey that will have you understanding just exactly what all those noises and sounds were that you used to hear when dialing your phone. Kerklunk! You're on a long distance trunk line!

Much of what the author goes into detail about is obtained through interviews with those who actually participated in the phreaking movement, worked for Ma Bell, or was obtained through declassified documents. You quickly find out that what started all of this was the fact that Bell Labs published the exact details of how the phone system worked back in the 1960s -- you could literally walk into any research library and read it for yourself. The phreakers just took this information and like any curious student, ran with it.

Even though this book is quite lengthy, I finished it in less than a week. I just couldn't put it down. If you know anyone who either lived during this period and was involved in phreaking, or if you know someone with a curious mind, this book is a must read!
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
We know much about the corporate history behind the technology that makes up our every day lives, but often so little about the hackers and curiosity seekers that molded and sometimes created the technologies that are literally changing the world.

In this book author Phil Lapsley tracks down dozens of the best "phone phreaks" of the mid to late 20th century to hear their stories about hacking the telephone network. These young hackers figured out a way to disrupt the largest company the world had ever seen. Many of these hackers went on to be pioneers of the information age, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who, before building the computer that made them famous, marketed an illegal but beautifully designed "blue box" that tricked AT&T's electromechanical switches into making free long distance calls.

So many of these stories would have gone unreported if it were not for Lapsley's efforts here. The best phreaks really were not in it for the glory or free phone calls but rather just exploring the largest electromechanical machine on the planet. Many only allowed Lapsley to use their phone phreak pseudonyms just in case the phone company was still out for retribution.

I've been fascinated with the early cutting edge users of technology and this book really adds to the historical record of the early days of the information age. Another book I highly recommend after reading this one is Kevin Mitnick's Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker.
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