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What can a Blind phone hacker with a 172 IQ teach us about our children: The story of Joe Engressia

Sep 30, 2020 at 03:35 pm by Christopher


Hello all.

 

I would like to begin a two-part blog entry recognizing a pair of unique individuals and their contributions to society and the way we live. Though we do not know if either had Optic Nerve Hypoplasia, both were Blind and demonstrated significant Autism related characteristics--particularly a narrow, circumscribed area of interest and great difficulty interacting with others. Both lived in very different times, but both shared some of the unique traits and abilities common in children and adults with ONH, including absolute pitch and specialized, innate skills.

 

Today, I'd like to discuss a man who--in his own way--helped contribute to the very fabric of how we communicate--both with and without disabilities. Joe Carl Engressia, Jr.--or Jojo to his family--was born on May 25, 1949 and lived with his parents and younger sister in an apartment in Richmond, Virginia. Both Jojo and his sister Toni were born blind, and doctors were unable to determine the cause. His father, Joe Engressia, Sr., was a high school photographer, while his mother, Esther, stayed at home with the children.

 

Like many families of children with disabilities, life at home was very stressful. Jojo's parents fought a lot, with their arguments sometimes landing Esther in the emergency room. When Jojo was three, he began pestering his mother to read to him--first fluently and then by spelling each word out letter by letter. This ultimately enabled him to master Braille a month or two after he entered school.

 

Like me and many other children with Autism characteristics, Jojo had several overriding areas of intense interest. These included the sounds of shower curtains, Jell-O--and probably most embarrassingly for his mother and sister--brassieres. Like me, Jojo's greatest interest as a young child was the sounds of the telephone network. this interest would become pervasive and all-encompassing and form the fabric of the rest of his life--despite pleas from his mother to "Hang up the phone. Leave it alone".

 

Jojo's introduction to the sounds of the telephone network began when his mother enabled him to dial the local number for a recording that announced the time. At that time, the local telephone exchange that allowed a person to access a recording of the time was 737, so Jojo's mother placed a piece of tape on the numbers 7 and 3 of the family's rotary dial telephone. This enabled Jojo to identify the digits 3 and 7 from the differences in texture between those digits and the remaining numbers on the rotary dial. One familiar with how a blind child can learn Braille can imagine how Jojo was able to distinguish differences in texture so readily and quickly. Ultimately, Jojo determined the positions of the other dials on his family's phone by using the digits 3 and 7 as a reference point.

 

To understand the rest of Jojo's story, one needs to appreciate that until the mid 1980's, local and long-distance telephone networks in the United States and world-wide consisted exclusively of electromechanical switches. prior to 1960, it was typical for a person to require an operator--using a manual cord board--to call a person outside their immediate local area. In the early 1960's, local telephone companies began offering the ability to make a long-distance or extended area telephone call by dialing directly--without initially speaking with an operator. This is referred to as direct distance dialing. These calls would be routed over a succession of local and long-distance trunks. Since these trunks were analog (consisted of mechanical parts), a person could control them by sending special tones down the phone lines. This would enable the person to make free long-distance calls (referred to as "blueboxing", route calls to specific parts of the long-distance network by dialing special codes, and even, in some notorious incidents, access telephone lines at military bases, foreign embassies, the White House and several defense contractors. A whole succession of primarily young people would discover and utilize these special frequencies to explore the telephone network, and many--like Joe Engressia--were blind children. Whether or not these children have ONH or other conditions linked to the Autism Spectrum--like Retinopathy of Prematurity--is unknown, but it is interesting to conceive that, like many Blind children today who also have Autism characteristics, Engressia and some of these other children of the telephone network were immature and socially awkward and had difficulty functioning in a traditional school environment.

 

Eventually, Jojo would devise a method for dialing digits by whistling the numbers at the frequency of seventh octave E. This simulated the use of a rotary dial in a process referred to as flashing. This special frequency of 2600 Hz also signaled to a long-distance telephone trunk that a call had ended. Young Jojo would discover that if he whistled a 2600 Hz tone during a call, it would drop the call but still leave him on the long-distance trunk, which carried his call. This enabled Jojo to bypass the equipment that reported toll charges and make other calls on the trunk by whistling them at 2600 Hz: seventh octave E.

 

By recording, whistling or otherwise broadcasting this special frequency down a phone line, one could also route calls nationally and internationally throughout local and long-distance networks. Engressia--and a group of others dedicated to uncovering the secrets of the telephone network--became known as 'phone phreaks."

 

Though Jojo would be tested as having an IQ of 172 and master Braille quickly, social interaction was a difficult struggle for little Jojo; this would have a profound impact on his later life. He would tell his kindergarten teacher, "Play Stinks!"

 

By contrast, the droning sounds of the dial tone and the magical ability for Jojo to control and explore  the intricacies of the telephone network became a source of comfort, companionship and solace. The telephone network did not argue or yell at him. It was never too busy for him, and it did not fight, become abusive or make demands of him. the telephone network also enabled Jojo to explore how its various switches interacted and develop, test and validate working hypotheses concerning how he could control its operations in a version of the scientific method.

 

Engressia amassed a collection of technical manuals about the #5 Crossbar, the most advanced and commonly used telephone switch of the day, which he would have his mother read to him. He also learned all he could about the telephone equipment by interacting with telephone repairman at his local central office.

 

As an aside, the apartment where I lived, located in Cincinnati Bell's operating territory, was served by two #5 Crossbar switches serving two exchanges each. I would not find this out until I was an adult.

 

Though he became friends with Tandy Way, another blind student in sixth grade who also would go on to become a phone phreak, Engressia had few other friends. Though he would earn an amateur radio license at age 16 and held credentials as a licensed ham radio operator, the telephone network remained his primary interest.

 

Engressia went on to attend the University of South Florida. There, he earned the nickname "the whistler" by making free long-distance calls for students in his dorm and charging $1 per call. this was significantly less than the typical long-distance rate at the time.

 

However, when helping a fellow student place a call to Long Island, Engressia misdialed and ended up being directed to a long-distance operator in Montreal. While Engressia was able to convince the operator to put the call through to Long Island, she stayed on the line and monitored the conversation, suspicious. Naturally, the student talked extensively about the "whiz kid" who put his call through for free. After the operator in Montreal cut in and convinced the student to identify himself, an investigation ensued, leading back to Engressia.

 

GTE, the local telephone service carrier serving the university, opted not to prosecute Engressia, sensing the potential public relations nightmare that prosecuting a blind college student would bring about. Instead, GTE would use a tactic that high tech software companies would use for years to come when presented with potential security vulnerabilities: disbelief and denial. After all, a young blind man could never learn how to outsmart Ma Bell by whistling in pay phones at college dorms, especially since she operated a large part of the infrastructure responsible for no less than our national security and that of Americas' largest corporations. Yet Engressia, and a fraternity of others that he would help form, were doing just that.

 

After presenting his case before the university's disciplinary board, Engressia was placed on probation and ordered to donate the $25 he earned from placing free long-distance calls to a worthy cause. Word of Engressia's exploits was ultimately picked up by the Associated Press and the Huntley-Brinkley News Show. Numerous other phone phreaks would reach out to him, which would set the course for the rest of his life.

 

Engressia would eventually drop out of college about a year short of obtaining his degree, later citing a lack of focus, depression and limited access to a telephone. He moved to an apartment in Memphis, Tennessee primarily because of his interest in exploring the telephone switching equipment in some area central offices. he would make visits to telephone central offices that he found particularly noteworthy, convincing the engineering staff and repairman to take him on tours of the equipment. Though he would later say that moving to Memphis was when his life really started, he found it impossible to live on his $97 welfare check. Like 70% of Blind adults in the United States, Ingressia found it impossible  to find a job. Drawing on his experience attending college in Florida, he found a unique solution to this problem: intentionally get arrested.

 

In what he referred to as his "Great gamble", Engressia called his local telephone repair office and reported trouble on his line. Upon hearing what he described as the subtle impedance change indicating that his line was being tested, he began narrating a series of telephone tricks to the repairman on the line. "I just said, ‘Oh, I’m going to call Russia now.’” Calling through a satellite circuit, “I whistled up the U.S. embassy in Moscow and talked for about two hours pretending I was a talk show host and [the embassy operator] was a talk show [guest]. They heard that and then I made a couple of other free calls and gave my phone number and then used the blue box after it,” he said. “Then,” he said, “I called this place called NORAD headquarters, something to do with the military, and I called it on a priority circuit. For some reason it rubbed them the wrong way.”

 

 Quote from Lapsley, Phil. Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell (pp. 130-131). Grove Atlantic. Kindle Edition.

 

After the first evening, Engressia became sure that his line was being tapped, so he hinted to his eavesdroppers of his plans to find a job: “I have only to July, so I must fly. Don’t sit home and sob, blue box and get a job.”

 

From Lapsley, Phil. Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell (p. 131). Grove Atlantic. Kindle Edition.

 

After technicians cut the current to his line and it went dead, Engressia hooked a 30-watt amplifier and a microphone up to his malfunctioning phone line, enabling him to confirm that technicians were indeed listening in on his line as he was able to pick up the sound of the technicians leaking through the phone line on his microphone. Engressia's great gamble was on its way to paying off.

 

On June 2, 1971, Joe Engressia was arrested outside his apartment while waiting for a cab. The phone company would later admit that it had been monitoring Engressia's activities for some time. Engressia was arraigned the next day on two counts of fraud, to which he pleaded not guilty. By this time, two reporters had interviewed him from jail: his gambit to generate the publicity he needed to become gainfully employed had gone into full effect.

 

The prosecution’s case was flimsy, and the judge ultimately decided that there was insufficient evidence to present it to a grand jury for indictment. The judge reduced Engressia's charges to Criminal Mischief, and he was given a 60-day suspended sentence.

 

The resulting publicity enabled Engressia to find a $2 an hour job at the Millington Telephone Company, an independent local telephone provider located about 15 miles outside Memphis. He would later move to Denver, where he worked for a year as a network trouble shooter for Mountain Bell. Like his earlier move to Memphis, he would cite an interest in working with computerized switching equipment as the main impetus for his move.

 

While Engressia did well at his job with Mountain bell, he wanted to work in telephone repair. However, this job alluded him. He also expressed difficulty adhering to the bureaucracy and regulations inherent in working in a corporate job for the telephone company at the time. Though much of his job involved tasks he was fully accustomed to performing on his own terms as a phone phreak, one can imagine that interacting with his superiors and adhering to corporate culture became impossible for him. He would eventually leave the job in an effort to facilitate the hiring of another Blind phone phreak.

 

Engressia's exploits at the University of South Florida and Memphis enabled him to connect with a whole community of people who dedicated their lives to playing with the phone, many of whom were Blind. They were generally unaware of each other’s existence before Engressia., who became an instant leader in the emerging underground community that he played a vital role in developing.

 

In Ron Rosenbaum's classic article, Secrets of the Little Blue Box", which introduced the world to the community of blind and sighted phone phreaks, Engressia was referred to as the "grand daddy" of telephone hackers. Engressia would ultimately form and lead a community of like-minded people, many of whom were blind and had difficulty fitting in to school, engaging in a social life and functioning in more traditional occupations. These phone phreaks communicated using special conference lines that only they could access--by means of blue boxes and other equipment that allowed them to manipulate the telephone network. Their intensions were simply to explore the exciting and unique wonderland that constituted the electromechanical telephone network of the day.

 

In later life, Engressia moved to Minneapolis, changed his name to Joybubbles!, and, professing in 1988 that he would become forever five years old, founded his own church of eternal childhood, citing sexual abuse he allegedly suffered at the hands of a nun at school. He ran several recorded telephone lines in the 1980's, including "Stories and Stuff" and the Zzzzyzzerrific Funline. The latter had the distinction of being the last entry in the Minneapolis telephone directory and featured discussions about Up with people, a Denver-based non-profit organization that teaches young adults to interact in a multicultural environment and create change in communities with varying needs.

 

He Eventually became known for traveling to the University of Pittsburgh Libraries, where he spent two months watching every episode of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of his Church of Eternal Childhood. Joybubbles! died in August 8 2007 at age 58 of undetermined causes.

 

Ultimately, AT&T Long Lines, the conglomerate that owned the long-distance network in the United States, would employ electronic switching equipment that closed many of the security vulnerabilities that the community of phone phreaks exposed and shut down their clandestine conference lines. However, their legacy would go on to inspire and facilitate the development of online information services--and ultimately--social media. Steve Wozniak, one of the co-founders of Apple, would cite Engressia as one of the inspirations for the formation of Apple.

 

The original secret telephone conferences the phone phreaks of the late 1960's and early 1970's would, following the evolution of the personal computer, contribute to the development of computer bulletin board systems (CBBS'S later in the 1970's. Anyone could access one of these computer-based systems by dialing into it with a modem, access and share files and information and chat on message boards created for users with special interests. These systems were typically operated by local computer users out of their homes using different operating systems. Networks of these systems would evolve which enabled users around the world to share messages and chat. Corporations, using technology known as timesharing which enabled users to share time and resources on large corporate mainframe computers, established online information services that offered news and sports, shopping and the ability to form special interest groups (SIG's), where users could also share information with people of similar interests and backgrounds from around the world.

 

These services became vital sources of information for many people with disabilities who were unable to otherwise communicate with the outside world because of physical, economic or social barriers. many advocacy and support organizations for people with disabilities, such as the National Federation of the Blind, would find homes on these SIG's, empowering a whole new generation of people with disabilities, enabling them to share ideas, network and form valuable connections.

 

Though I personally would not know of Engressia until I was an adult, he and I shared many of the same developmental characteristics. I discovered our local telephone system when I was four, and like little Jojo, it served as a vast, undiscovered playground for me. There were three aspects of the phone system of this time that kept me obsessed with it until I was 14, and even then, drawing myself away from it and toward more normal activities was one of the greatest struggles of my early adolescence.

 

First, while each switch, as well as certain long-distance trunks, had its own unique sound, each could be divided into categories based on the pitch of the tone it made when it rang. A #5 Crossbar switch--like the one that served the community where I lived until I was six--always had a different sound than one of the electronic switches that were coming online or the older mechanical switches that served Downtown Cincinnati. However, no two #5 Crossbars in my area--or in surrounding communities that were long-distance for us--sounded alike.

 

I would develop favorite switches that I would call constantly. I could identify switches in our local telephone network, which was operated by Cincinnati Bell, either by the sound of the switch itself or by the intercept recordings associated with that switch. Intercept recordings, the recordings that played when a person dialed an invalid number or a call could not be completed, were a major point of obsession for me because each recording was associated with a switch. In Cincinnati, they always ended with the letters "CB" followed by a two-digit number. Therefore, finding out what CB a person was from was a major aspect of how I identified where I was or recognized people in my life. That is--until Cincinnati Bell started using new recordings when I was in second grade. Toll switches in the long-distance network also had intercept recordings, which I would also listen to repeatedly.

 

certain trunks in the long-distance network also had distinctive signatures that I could identify. For example, the trunk to Las Vegas, which I could reach by dialing many Toll-free '800 numbers followed by the digits '6 3 4' and another set of four digits, made a very distinct high-pitched whining noise with an undertone in the key of F-Sharp. This sound was different than trunks to other parts of Nevada such as Reno or Lake Tahoe, though the entire state had the same area code. Many Canadian locations also had distinctive sounds that I could identify immediately. Recognizing these differences was so vital to me, that I remembered learning to recognize peoples' voices based on my ability to distinguish different phone exchanges.

 

Second, each switch interacted differently based on my location, and sometimes, the same switch would make a different sound based on various conditions. For example, I used to make calls from my grandparents' house which were routed differently from calls to the same exchanges from the exchange serving the apartment where I lived. When there were storms or other conditions that affected service to given areas, I would dial a number in that exchange to determine if there were any intermediate switches through which my call would pass. This enabled me to determine how many calls in my area were being handled among different switches. I would later find out that switches that served as intermediate gateways between a calling party and the destination switch were called tandems, and working with network tandems is a major aspect of phone phreaking.

 

Third, the very network itself seemed to be constantly changing. With the advent of electronic switching and the impact of the Breakup of the Bell System in 1984, the landscape of the network changed constantly. This effected how switches interacted, which kept me on the phone--like a gambler at a slot machine looking for a jackpot.

 

When Cincinnati Bell began offering international direct distance dialing when I was in fifth grade, I responded by making several calls to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba--among other locations. Remember this was during the cold War--four-and-a-half years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

The last straw came in eighth grade when a service--referred to as casual calling--became available, which allowed me to place calls to alternative long-distance carriers. This came about as a result of A T & T's breakup nearly four years earlier. I became fixated on one carrier's access code in particular. When these calls started showing up on our phone bill and the alternative long-distance carrier, I was dialing called my mother asking if she wanted our long-distanced switched, my mother drew the line. By this time, I had also run up a $141 phone bill dialing some special access conference services which A T & T operated. It was November 1987, and I had just turned 14.

 

When I finally abandoned the phone network, I would receive a subscription to CompuServe and connect to its Disabilities Forum, where I was able to connect with many successful Blind adults, a few of whom I still keep in touch with today. I would learn to use an IBM PC with screen reading technology, and the skills I gained from doing this would prove crucial to my success in high school and college. The skills I learned and the vestiges of my childhood interest in telephones were a major impetus for establishing ONH Consulting as a means of supporting families of children with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia in different parts of the United States and internationally.

 

Though Joe Engressia is hardly a household name--even in the category of distinguished Blind people--, I believe those interested in working and promoting adequate educational supports for children with Blindness and Autism characteristics need to study his life and the society of phone phreaks he created. In general, the original community of Blind phone phreaks--a few of whom are still active in the Blind community--were people who grew up long before laws mandating equal education for people with disabilities went into effect. They received their education in segregated settings and had limited access to the supports they needed to succeed in traditional classroom settings or employment.

 

On top of that, Engressia demonstrated particular difficulty with social interactions, and his reported obsessive behaviors contributed to a stressful environment at home with his parents and sister. These dynamics are very typical of families of children with special needs, including those with children who are Blind, have learning or sensory processing differences, operate on the Autism Spectrum, or deal with some combination of all three.

 

Yet Engressia was at the heart of an underground movement of like-minded individuals--operating more or less as a secret society--that helped lay the foundations of how we communicate via apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and organize communities. What does this say about teaching children with learning or processing differences?

 

Engressia's story demonstrates the importance of meeting children's needs where they are. Many with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia and related conditions have very different perceptions of the world around them and experience sensory processing difficulties. However, we need to have the ability--and the emotional and neurological infrastructure--to succeed in a diverse society with a set of norms that may be a difficult struggle for us to process and assimilate.

 

The ability for us to develop the connections we need to survive and thrive in a sighted, socially oriented society--sometimes by highly unorthodox means--cannot be underestimated. For example, the idea of finding a job by using a cadre of specialized skills to be arrested in order to draw media attention in order to find a job would likely not occur to most people who are typically developed. Certainly, no rehabilitation counselor would recommend this as a viable strategy for obtaining employment. However, in Joe Engressia's case, it worked. Nowadays, work portfolios are a common way for many seeking employment to demonstrate their skills to employers--particularly those with learning differences. One could consider Engressia's Great gamble a unique application of a work portfolio.

 

Yet, in many crucial ways, Engressia never integrated into society in the typical sense. In a time when it was common and expected for a person to hold down a single job throughout his / her lifetime, Engressia never stayed in one full-time job for more than a year. His moves were prompted not by typical concerns--like the availability of affordable housing or adequate transportation--but characteristics of the area's telephone network, which was his area of interest. He never married or had children. Ultimately, he would publicly profess that he was reverting to early childhood, forming his own church and legally changing his name to Joybubbles!

 

I write so extensively on Engressia as he shared many of the characteristics of children with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia as well as other Blind children who operate on the Autism Spectrum.

These include a pervasive and all-encompassing interest in features of the telephone network, absolute pitch, social immaturity and limited ability to interact with others. What does Engressia's story tell us about how to educate our children and enable us to thrive?

 

We as professionals need to understand our children's unique strengths and the creative ways they solve problems in their environment. When areas of interest are all-encompassing and interactional skills are limited, this can be easier said than done.

 

Despite his Obsessions, Joe Engressia demonstrated a great degree of problem-solving, creativity and initiative in generating the media publicity he needed to create his own like-minded group of telephone hackers and develop the means to enable them to communicate secretly--skills that also enabled him to find employment. He was also a great self-taught scientist, systematically exploring and manipulating features of local and long-distance networks, and formulating and testing working hypotheses about how these functioned and performed.

 

Yet, like many of our children, working on others' terms was especially difficult, and one has to wonder if Engressia had ever developed concepts of perspective taking and theory of mind, which are real struggles for most children and adults on the Autism Spectrum.

 

Most Blind children on the Autism Spectrum have great difficulty generalizing what they have learned from one subject area to another. However, if Engressia had been thoroughly evaluated and given a structured educational program that enabled him to learn basic academic and social skills within the context of his interest in telecommunications, would he have become a successful network engineer? If he had been able to--for example--obtain his amateur radio license under the direction of a mentor and his teachers and other professionals could have used amateur radio to develop his social skills, might he have gone on to found a personal computer company or a competitor to Ma Bell? Could he have worked with Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs as a founder or partner of Apple Computers?

 

I believe there is much that Joe Engressia's story can teach us about how educators, families, and potential employers can nurture, educate and lead our children to gainful employment and a happy and productive life.

 

Much of the material from this blog post comes from Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell, by Phil Lapsley with a forward by Steve Wozniak. This book was published in 2013 by Grove Press and available from Amazon. Ron Rosenbaum's article from the October 1971 issue of Esquire, Secrets of the Little Blue Box, is available directly from Esquire's web site and several other sites related to the history of phone phreaking, computing and early information networks available through a simple Google Search. I reference some materials from the Wikipedia article on Joybubbles!, which has several links of interest. Finally, a recorded interview with Engressia, identifying as Joybubbles! is available from the web site of Off the Hook, a radio program produced by the hacker community alt.2600 for a New York Public Radio Station which aired on November 20 1991. Please note that the link still works but may require Windows Media Player to play.

 

For additional information on phone phreaking and historic telephone network sounds, there is a Youtube Channel called Phonetrips. . This site features literally thousands of hours of vintage telephone recordings from all the switches that existed in the local and long distance network from 1968 to about 1987. The site is owned and moderated by Evan Doorbell, one of the original phone phreaks who regularly communicated with Joe Engressia.

 

If you have any ideas for entries to our blog, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at any time.

 

We greatly appreciate your visit to our web site and hope to hear from you soon!

 

Very Best Regards,

 

Christopher Sabine

President

ONH Consulting, LLC