Remembering Joybubbles: Short-term Denver resident, general weirdo and hacker O.G.

Before email, before the interwebs, before hackers, there were phone phreaks. And before there were even phone phreaks, back in the '60s, there was Joybubbles, a little blind kid with a 172-I.Q., perfect pitch and an obsession with the phone. Then named Joe Engressia, he was seven years old when he invented his first trick, getting around his annoyed babysitter's lock on the rotary telephone replicating the dial sounds by rapidly pressing on the receiver cradle, allowing him to place calls anyway. By the next year, he randomly figured out that he could make interesting things happen on the line by whistling certain pitches. Then he called up the phone company to find out why.

As it turns out, the dial tones you used to hear when you punched buttons on a regular telephone were not just parts of the phone's internal mechanism; they were actually sending their tone along the line, essentially alerting an analog mechanism to do things -- so basically, if you were to play the sound of your phone dialing into the receiver, it would still dial. Because of that system, in fact, you could do a lot by playing certain frequencies into your phone's receiver, from routing your calls wherever you wanted to placing long-distance calls (back when they cost extra) for free. A telephone savant, as it were, Engressia could make these things happen by whistling.

When he was in college, he got caught whistling into phones to allow his friends to make long-distance calls for $1, and the story got a lot of traction. And that's when the phone phreaks started coming out of the woodwork.

All over the country, other folks had been figuring out how to do the same things (albeit with slightly more sophisticated methods that whistling), those people reached out to him when they heard of his story; Engressia told those people about the others, and suddenly a viable phreaking community began to emerge, using their expertise to make conference calls with each other before conference calls even existed, exchanging tips and information and figuring out the phone system -- then almost completely dominated by the Bell network -- from the inside out. Much of what they did was illegal, sure, and the whistling bust wasn't the first time Engressia went down for it.

But here's what's interesting about Engressia's story, is that, while he took pleasure in messing with Ma Bell, he also loved her -- he'd often report problems he'd illegally found in the system to switchmen, even though it sometimes got him in trouble, and his dream was to work for the phone company. He eventually realized that dream when he was hired in 1975 to work on problems in the network of Mountain Bell in Denver. He did that for seven years, until he moved to Minneapolis in 1982.

Engressia, it's not hard to assume, was always kind of a weird dude, and it wasn't long after that, by the end of the '80s, that he started getting really weird. Claiming in 1988 that his childhood molestation at the hands of a nun had stunted his emotional growth, he chose to remain five years old for the rest of his life, playing with toys and collecting tapes of every Mister Rogers episode, and also creating the Church of Eternal Childhood, to which he was leader and the only known member. That was about the time he changed his name to "Joybubbles."

He died four year ago today, still mentally five years old, the retired practitioner of an art that had become obscure -- but he had some big fans. Back in his heyday, phone phreaks were the predecessors to hackers, manipulating a system that, then, was the world's biggest computer. And he inspired, among others, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple Computers, who were themselves phone phreaks before they got their start in computers.

In a way, phreaking was kind of a pointless hobby -- you could tap people's lines or shut down grids, if you had the smarts and the inclination -- but Joybubbles hardly even did that. Like the best hackers, geeks and creators he helped pave the way for, he mostly did it, it seems, for the joy of figuring out how shit works.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte