Last night I was reading a story from the IEEE Spectrum Magazine that I found very interesting. I recently read a very good book about the history of Bell Labs and AT&T and I don’t think this incident was mentioned at all.

Phreaking Out Ma Bell: How a buccaneering young engineer built the little blue box that broke into the biggest network in the world


By the time Barclay finished reading it, the vulnerability in AT&T’s network had crystallized in his mind: “I thought, this is a better way than using a pay phone…this is a way to get around all that other stuff and do it directly.”

“It,” of course, was making free calls.

The ability to absorb 64 pages of dry, technical mumbo jumbo and spot the vulnerability is a rare one. The engineers from Bell Labs who designed the system and wrote the article didn’t see it. Thousands of engineers in the future would read that article and not see it. But 18-year-old Ralph Barclay did. The funny thing about it is, once the hole is explained to you, it’s obvious. But until it’s explained to you, most people would never think of it. Certain people have minds that are tuned in a particular way to see things like that. Ralph Barclay was one of those people.


The paper from the Bell System Technical Journal that inspired the hack can be found here.

By the way, if you are interested in learning about an important part of the history of current technology, finding out about how the transistor was really invented, how Shannon spent weeks home working on something “secret” that ended up becoming the theory of communications and the basis of information theory… you should read this book.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

Maybe I should have known about it, but finding out that the very first satellite communications experiment was carried out by Bell Labs with a huge balloon covered with a thin metallic layer was a revelation for me.