In the modern world of high-powered gadgets, it’s easy to forget that less than 30 years ago our imaginations were similarly captured by simpler, less dramatic technologies. Like the first caveman wielding fire, we look on with rapt attention as newer, smaller, more powerful gadgets hit the market. Wide-eyed, we extend our arms, palms raised in reverence as we wait to receive our new iPhones.
But our technological obsession is owed — or at least kin — to an earlier generation of pioneers. Both our progress and our fascination are indebted to those individuals who looked at the systems, the mechanics, and the workings of the technologies around them and asked two simple words…
But how does my phone call get from New York to San Francisco? How does a cellular company transmit data? How does a serviceman repair a landline without entering the house? These questions, among a host of others, drove men to extraordinary lengths and inspired new levels of ingenuity in an age when the seeds of communications technology were just beginning to blossom.
These early trailblazers occasionally risked life and limb and conducted their clandestine experiments under the constant threat of legal repercussions. And yet, they pushed forward. They carved a path through treacherous terrain so that the rest of us could follow, driven always forward by that unshakeable voice inside that asks, “but how?”
But how has their wisdom informed our path? And how has their playfulness encouraged us to follow?
Here, in a humble attempt to — if not answer — speak to those questions, we celebrate the men who taught us fire. Those who ventured forth into the unknown jungle and returned with light in their hearts and questions heavy on their minds. So, from a two-pound improvised cell tower to a $5 solution to a $300 problem, we look at four products ingeniously repurposed by hackers.
The OKI-900 is a relic.
Holding the two-pound brick phone, with its decisively function-driven design, you can’t help but recognize a certain magic — an immediate nostalgia — that harkens back to a less complicated time. The last shipment of OKI-900 cellular phones was in December of 1994. Only 10,000 were shipped, but for nearly a decade after, the OKI-900 was highly sought after by anyone looking to do a little spelunking into the depths of the quickly expanding cellular telephone system.
Why the OKI-900, though? The telephone gained favor with cellular experimenters largely due to its easily modifiable firmware. With an EPROM programmer, a handful of 8051 chips, and a little technical knowledge, you could open a whole pallet of boxes of cans of trouble. A simple sequence, burned into the mind of every adherent of the OKI-900 granted access to a hidden “debug mode.”
Seven and nine together. Hit Menu, Snd, End, Rcl, Sto, Clr. The phone would light up and cheerfully applaud your “Good timing!” From there, the entirety of the analog cellular system unveiled itself. In debug mode, you could monitor cell towers, listen in on cellular calls, capture raw call data, and even clone other users’ phones.
The Radio Shack Tone Dialer
Who could forget the 90s? It was the era of Pogs and hi-top fades. Beanie Babies and slap bracelets. An evergreen Ford Taurus and a shady pay phone on every corner.
And on some of those corners, heads ducked into those phone’s blue plastic alcoves: the world’s least appreciated pilgrims. In cities across the world, phreakers — a subculture devoted to the study and exploration of the telecommunications system — flocked to 7-11 parking lots, library lobbies, subway stations and mall entryways to score free calls and hone their craft.
One of the most integral tools in the phreaker’s arsenal was the red box. Pay phones worked by creating a series of unique tones that sounded whenever a coin was inserted. Find a way to play the right tones and you could fool the phone into thinking you’d actually dropped a quarter into its slot.
The red box perfectly — well, adequately — replicated these tones.
Constructed by opening up a Radio Shack tone dialer and trading out the standard crystal for a 6.5536 MHz crystal, the red box might as well have been on Radio Shack’s shelves since the store carried every tool and component required to build it. From there, you programmed the tone dialer by storing a sequence of key presses to memory and, voila, you were the proud new owner of a sword against AT&T.
The Yaesu VX-5 And VX-7
A later entry, but no less indicative of the ingenuity and mischievousness of the hacker community, the Yaesu VX-5 and VX-7 handheld radio transceivers hold within them the capability to open a 12-piece, dark meat Pandora’s box combo on fast food chains across the globe.
A few (relatively) simple modifications to the transceiver’s hardware — mainly, the removal of several small solder contacts — allows the Yaesu to transmit on MARS and CAP frequencies. What are MARS and CAP? MARS is Military Auxiliary Radio System, a program consisting of licensed amateur radio operators interested in supplementing existing military communications. CAP — Civil Air Patrol — is a similarly organized program focused on search and rescue, disaster relief and emergency services.
But why toy with government communications when you can hijack the Wendy’s drive-through?
In a — mildly hilarious — twist of fate, the same modification that unlocks MARS/CAP transmission also unlocks transmission over fast food drive-through frequencies. In one famous YouTube video, a Taco Bell customer — in on the joke — attempts to order two Pepsis and a root beer only to be told, “you have to actually order, like, a taco” otherwise “we’re gonna [urinate] in your drink.” Mercifully, the prankster adds “but we’ll give’em to you at a discounted rate.”
The Touch-Tone Handset
Back in the day, there were two ways to get ahold of a lineman’s handset. First, you could order one from a telecommunications supplier. At $300 apiece, however, this was a costly option. Second, you could find your way into a service van and pilfer one. Being a felony punishable by actual prison time, however, this was a risky option. Most people in these circumstances would say, “Oh well, I’ll find myself another hobby.”
But hackers aren’t most people.
Loving a challenge almost as much as forbidden technology, intrepid phone enthusiasts conceived of a third option: they would build one. The solution was amazingly simple. By stripping the cord of a touch-tone handset and soldering alligator clips to the red and green wires, they created the functional equivalent of a lineman’s handset.
Dubbed the “beige box” these ad-hoc handsets became a staple in the phreaking community. Capable of tapping directly into telephone junction boxes, the beige box granted its user free, anonymous access to any landline they could put eyes on. Their ease of construction was rivaled only by their ease of use and their widespread applications ensured that every phreaker carried at least one in their kit. The beige box was a golden ticket that allowed free exploration of the boundless telephonic landscape; it was a window through which unfolded the manifold mysteries of the telephone system.