Evan Doorbell’s Telephone World

Ah, phone phreaking. Some of us are just old enough to remember the ubiquity of land lines, but just young enough to have missed out on the golden years of phreaking. There’s something nostalgic about the analog sounds of the telephone, and doubly so when you understand what each click and chunk sound means. If this wistful feeling sounds familiar, then you too will appreciate [Evan Doorbell] and his recordings of 1970s telephone sounds. He’s been slowly working through his old recordings, and compiling them into a series of narrated tours of the phreak subculture.

[Evan]’s introduction to exploring the phone system started from a misdialed number, and an odd message. He describes that recorded “wrong number” message as being very different from the normal Ma Bell messages — this one was almost sultry. What number did he have to dial to hear that unique recording again? What follows is a youth spent in pursuit of playing with the phone system, though it would be more accurate to say the “phone systems”, as discovering the differences between the various local phone exchanges is a big part of the collection. Check out the first tape in the series after the break.

What’s really unique is the way the narration is woven together with his recordings from the time. A “party line” is the nickname for a number that can host an unintentional conference call, where multiple callers can talk to each other. Party lines feature heavily in this series, and it’s the first time I’ve heard actual recordings of one from the era. Head to the website for the audio downloads, or check the Youtube playlist above to stream them. Either way, enjoy the trip down the Phone Phreak rabbit hole.

19 thoughts on “Evan Doorbell’s Telephone World

    1. The Firtz!Box can still handle pulse dial phones (okay I do not know how it is with the newest model). In my workshop i have one attached, but nobody uses it everybody in the house has his own mobile – and the landline has permanent call forwarding to my mobile ;-)

      1. When I retire, I hope to put my cell phone aside. I use it mainly for work anyway and company pays for it. We didn’t ‘need’ to stay connected before cell… why do we think we need one on us at all times now? And have the added expense? We have a ‘land-line’ (over cable (intenet/phone). If not home, leave a message and we’ll get back to you 🙂 . Simple.

        Old enough to have used the rotary. But most of my life was/is push button. Neat that someone is preserving the ‘sounds’ of yesterday.

      2. If no Fritz!Boxes around, I’ve had luck with Grandstream boxes, because many of them support pulse dialing either out-of-box or by enabling the feature. I have two rotary telephones on their new-ish two-port HT802 model, older four-port GXW-something model for testing and playing around, and a Raspberry Pi running Asterisk with SIP trunks and some services like speaking clock.

        Some guests are amused about the “decorative pieces”, but then I tell them to pick up the phone and listen for a dial tone to see if it works… and they hear the tone. Operators have been tearing phonelines down for many years, 15-20 years ago most people had mobile phones, and nationwide network required tone dialing by mid 90’s, so having an old, working rotary telephone is kind of a remnant of a lost world.

  1. Some of us are old enough. But it was something over there. I never thought “I want to do it”.

    Spring 1975, a 3part article in 73 magazine about phone phreaking. Got Wayne Green in trouble for publishing it.

    Less technical detail, but it was mentioned in “Steal This Book” from 1971, I got.my first copy in 76. For years the Yippie! newsletter had articles.

    In 74 or 75 a kid at high school was interested in phones. Had a.lineman’s handset, and I think subscribed to TAP.

    People would use tricks, like calling collect but the name carried a message, and the receiver would then decline the call. But I think phreaking became a bigger thing afterwards, nostalgia for something not experienced. So yes, it was in Esquire, and I think Ramparts, but it’s a much bigger thing after the fact, helped along with the Two Steves involvement.

    A dial telephone still sits on the kitchen wall here, properly connected.

    1. I had a copy of both the Ramparts article on the ” black box” And the Esquire article on the blue box, it use by organize crime ,Joseph Engresha ( the whistler) and John Draper (chaptan Crunch). And this lead me to a career in telephpny and owning an interconnect company. I was in the habit of quizzing every phone man I could about deper info. And even raiding the dumpsters at the local depot. I eventually amassed a library of technical manuals on maintaince, installation, and even PBXes/ key systems ( GTE my area).
      ATt bell system and one from Western Carolina Telephone, part of the Continual System which became United Telephone and is now Embarc. It has changed so many times I can’t keep up. I made my first “butt set”. Went to Navy School to be aStroger switch tech. ITT sent me a copy of their telephone service manual (TMM 2) fun times, great memories….

    2. The collect calls with a name that carries a message reminds me of a commercial (can’t remember the product, but it was a parody about people being cheap) where a guy calls his parents collect and says his name is, “Wehadababy Itsaboy”, and the dad declines, and informs his wife they are grandparents. Funny stuff.

  2. I have enjoyed these from the moment I first stumbled across the first one when trying to find information about the old network, phreaking, and blueboxes. He has a soothing voice and his production quality is nothing short of amazing.

  3. Excellent article and series of videos.
    Being of a similar age and playing with the UK phone system in the early 70s was great fun and influenced some of my interest/hobby/career choices down the line. I wish I had had the foresight to record stuff. Unfortunately the only use I made of my reel to reel in those days was to record John Peel and Radio Luxembourg.

  4. One of my first forays into hacker culture was a burned cd of “hacker files” i picked up as a teen from a flea market computer shop. Several megabytes of bbs and usenet lore, hacker koans, and ascii art laced descriptions of every box under the rainbow, along with a bunch of likely stale script tools for breaking windows pcs. I already disliked the idea of cocot pay phones, and knew before i’d pured through the “phreak” directory that i’d showed up about a decade too late for the party. It’s fun to hear this history being recorded and made accessible.

    1. As a West German I was born into a land of out-of-band signaling, the Bundespost (disbanded 1995) and a strict Fernmeldetechnisches Zentralamt (disbanded 1995, too) with it’s Endgerätemonopol prohibiting effectively the trading of any interesting hardware and attaching anything “illegal” to the net. The wildest thing I heard was that someone had a second Fernsprechtischapparat (FeTAp) 611 connected to his home line without allowance from Bundespost. What a disobedience. At least in theory there was prison time on everything. West Germany, keep in mind.

      Reading Phrack with storys about color boxes was like fairy tales from a different planet.

      My first step into illegality was a 2400er modem with FAX mode well within the risk of getting it confiscated (no, they wouldn’t, my bill was astronomical), soon replaced by a 9600er. With USRobotics Courier Dual Standard/Zyxel Elite 2864 the Monopol started to crumble, there were times when they were still illegal to connect to Telekom net but everywhere in use.

  5. Very nicely done. A good compilation for the history books and future generations. Since many (including me) have ADD… it is tough to listen through so many minutes of an audio program (this is not to be a negative statement, just reality… have to be driving or doing audio books to listen to a 1 hour audio program). The narration is very professional and the explanations are good.

    It is really true that LD used to sound like LD… travelling over analog frequency division multiplexing, with it’s noise and cross-tack (frost talk). And all the various clicking that would happen while MF tones forwarded the call. Try overseas in the 70’s! If you made that call from a European post office or hotel, you would hear clicking in the background, which was activating a counter for which your toll would accumulate. Local calls, the click would be every 30 to 60 seconds (or longer)… but calling overseas would result in an almost continuous clicking if not even a buzz from the revolutions that counter was making… expensive.

    People used to call LD and talk between rings… cause the circuit was posted physically end-to-end, but there was a way to wire the hybrid keeping the phone off-hook (and avoid tolls), but E+M fully functional. Many electrical engineering students away at University figured this one out. Phone company started looking at CDR for phones “ringing” for an unusually long time.

    Thank you for a very successful compilation to give a feel for what telephony was like 50 years ago.

  6. Sigh… I am a year older than the fellow on the video. I remember all of this very clearly, including the “party lines”. I also learned about the way to enter the trunk system with a 2400 Hz tone, which just happened to be the tone of a toy whistle found in a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal box. But I sadly didn’t have one because my mother thought Cap’n Crunch had too much sugar in it. So i taught myself how to whistle that tone. You call any long distance information line for an area code (xxx-555-1212) and after it connected but before the operator answered you whistled or played the tone. You would hear a clunk and you were in the long distance trunk lines. If you had a blue box (I didn’t) you would be able to make free phone calls anywhere in the world!

    A few year ago, someone set up a PBX system which emulated this experience. And he also gave a link to a Windows program that emulated a blue box. So you could call his number and play. Here’s the website http://www.projectmf.org/intro.html

  7. IIRC, in the golden years of phone phreaking there were maybe 10 or 20 people seriously involved, and they got visits from the FBI. I got “operator interrupt” or 2AM phone calls from John Draper in Hawaii thanks to his tricks. But never from anyone else.

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