Checklist 40: Apple’s Hacker History
- The Apple of today owes much of its success to early hackers.
- Phreaking: what is it and why was it so important?
- Captain Crunch, the Blue Box, and Apple’s early days.
- The role of the Homebrew Computer Club.
- Times have changed, but the early hacker spirit lives on today.
The word “hacker” today immediately conjures up thoughts of computer viruses, malware, lost data, and more. Yet that wasn’t always the case — in fact, “hacker culture” was once relatively benign compared to today. Not only that, but it’s thanks to the hackers of yesteryear that a lot of the technology we have in the world today even exists.
There’s no better example of that in action than the story of Apple itself. That’s right: on this week’s episode of The Checklist, we’re looking at Apple’s hacker roots and the environment that made all their cutting-edge innovations possible. We’ll also give you a window into the world of “phreaking,” a subculture that played a hand in bringing Apple’s early characters together and pushing them into the future.
The Apple of today owes much of its success to early hackers.
Apple was once a simple start-up company operated out of a garage, scrambling to make a name for itself in the tech world. While Apple boasts a highly polished and refined image today, it wasn’t always that way. The company built its early image around the hacking and phreaking scenes.
It’s important to remember what computer systems were like back then in the late 1970’s. When we talk about this period in Apple’s history, it’s easy to forget how basic computers were back then compared to those today. Now, we have machines that instantly work out of the box, with little user setup. Everything is graphical, readily available, and totally designed around providing the user with the easiest experience possible.
Now flashback to this: The Apple I computer came without a keyboard, without a screen… without anything! It was a practically a naked circuit board. You had to put the rest together yourself. That on its own should tell you something about the relationship between early Apple and the hacker ethos. Consider that this was originally made to impress friends in a club. It all flowed from a desire to experiment and push the envelope of technology: to see what was possible.
There was an almost literal element to the word “hacking” here when Steve Wozniak approached the challenge of building a brand-new computer. Even as Steve Jobs began to lay out his vision for selling the machines in larger batches and eventually developing new products, those challenges remained. A lot of “hacking” together of hardware and software components is what propelled Apple to fame.
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call the 70s and 80s the “Wild West” of the computer age. There was no end to innovation and competition across the country. Computers weren’t just new; they were exciting! The possibilities seemed endless, but you had to get your hands dirty to make the machines do what you wanted. Parts and plans were swapped, ideas were kicked around freely, and the sharing of information was widely encouraged. In fact, Bill Gates even published an open letter blasting how often hobbyists in the community shared software without ever paying for it in the first place.
Apple’s early team embraced and embodied this piratical spirit of scrappy “we can do it ourselves” optimism, even as the company grew. In 1983, Jobs told the team working under him that “It’s better to be a pirate than join the navy.” What did he mean by that? Apple was growing, and in some ways, it was leaving behind the experimental era of phone phreaking and hacking.
Knowing this, Jobs still wanted to keep that pirate spirit alive — after all, Apple was still a small company in a marketplace crowded with power players like IBM. If he could motivate his team by calling back to their roots, he would. As a symbol of this determination to stay on the cutting edge and avoid the pressure to go mainstream, a black pirate flag actually flew above Apple’s building for a while during this period. While Apple no longer flies that flag, the fact that it once did is a potent reminder of Apple’s humble and very human beginnings.
So, with all that said, what influences and events played a part in the development of the first Apple computers? Let’s look at a few of the ways Apple’s founders connected with and became a part of the early hacking scene. We’ll start with phreaking — it’s a lost art today, but it was once an incredibly popular activity.
Phreaking: what is it and why was it so important?
To understand more about how and why Apple came to be a symbol of this rebellious portion of the computer community, we’ll have to dive deeper into the history. You’ve heard of hacking, of course, but what about the “phreaking” we mentioned earlier? This combination of the words “phone” and “freak” should give you a little tip as to what it was all about. This activity — which centered around the telephone system — was once the “hacking” of its day, before personal computers reached an affordable and ubiquitous level and during their rise as well.
No longer relevant today, phreaking was once a thriving community of hobbyists and technologically skilled individuals in the 70s and 80s. Think about it: before the rise of the Internet and the spread of email and instant communications, the phone network was the primary means of communicating with others.
Of course, that also meant that the telephone company wielded enormous power. It wasn’t like today when you can grab your cell phone and call anyone at any moment. Long-distance charges were standard, and quite pricey — and international calls were prohibitively expensive for many people. Phreaking was born in part out of a desire to sidestep the need actually to pay the phone company.
At its root, phreaking was all about exploring and understanding the telephone network. Much like later hackers would probe early business computer networks and later the Internet, there was lots of curiosity about how telephone systems worked. After a transition away from human operators, switchboards were replaced by mechanical, analog switches.
Automatic switchboards would make call routing much easier, but there needed to be a way to control and manipulate these switches. As a result, the phone companies relied on a series of tones and sounds. The right sound could trigger a switch to perform a certain function. Think of it like entering a command on a computer, only the command takes the form of audio rather than some text typed on a keyboard. It used to be that when you dialed the phone, especially for making a long-distance call, you could often hear some or all these tones in the background. Phreakers spent lots of time learning about and exploring these tones.
Now, here’s the kicker: with the right know-how, you could trick the phone system into thinking you were one of the signaling devices issuing the control tones. One of the most common methods for doing this, which we’ll discuss in more depth shortly, was the use of a 2600 hertz tone. This tone told any listening telephone switch that the line was idle and ready for re-use. It didn’t take long for phreakers to figure out how to exploit this to make free phone calls.
You might start by calling a distant toll-free number and then introduce the tone onto the line. The tone would tell the switch the line was idle and no call was active. You would then dial the next series of numbers you wanted to call, and the switch would interpret it to place the call. Since you never hung up the phone, the call is now free. You could easily use this method to place calls all around the world. With the right setup, it was possible to loop through circuits around the world, exploring the furthest reaches of the phone network.
Phreaking extended outside of this area, too. Some tones could trick a payphone into thinking someone had deposited a quarter into its coin slot, for example. Other phreakers built their own telephones or modified the lines to their homes to allow them to place an endless amount of free calls. Strictly speaking, the majority of this wasn’t legal at all. That rarely stopped any of its participants, though, even as those who took their fun too far drew the attention of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
Captain Crunch, the Blue Box, and Apple’s early days.
So, we know that it was possible to control the phone system using tones, because the systems powering the telephone network relied on these analog signals to communicate. How did the manipulation of the system begin and what was the role of Apple’s founders? Believe it or not, Apple’s founders made a start by selling phreaking equipment. We can trace Apple’s involvement in this scene ultimately back to a man named John Draper — better known by his popular nickname, Captain Crunch.
The phreaking scene was already alive and well in the early 1970s, with several individuals using cassette recordings of instruments playing tones that were close enough to trigger call switching. At the time, Draper was exploring the operation of pirate radio stations when he met an individual who introduced him to a group of established phreakers. Collaboration with these people led him deeper into the subculture and to his unique nickname.
Some years prior, Cap’n Crunch cereal packed in a small toy whistle as its in-box prize. It was supposed to sound like a captain’s whistle, but it sounded like something else too: by blocking up one of the whistle’s air holes, it produced a perfect 2600 hertz tone. Phreakers who had one of these whistles could skip the arduous process of trying to learn how to make the right sound themselves. Inspired, Draper took the nickname “Captain Crunch” for himself as he delved into the world of phreaking.
His exploits, especially with a device known as a blue box, eventually landed him in trouble with the authorities — but not before he had been interviewed for a magazine article. It was this article that captured the attention of Jobs and Wozniak, and led Woz on a journey to track Captain Crunch down for an in-person meeting. Both Jobs and Woz learned more about the ins and outs of phreaking from the Captain. Coincidentally, Draper was also a member of the same computer club that would see the birth of the Apple I some years later.
Because this next part of the story is important, let’s talk about what a blue box actually is. A blue box is actually a very simple device: it’s hardware that can generate the 2600 Hz idling tone without the need for anything else. Blue boxes also often featured their own keypads; this allowed users to immediately dial in to the next number or telephone exchange they wanted to call. There were many other phreaking boxes out there by the 90s, each one designed to interact with and manipulate the phone system in a different way.
To satisfy his own curiosity, Wozniak had spent lots of time trying to develop a blue box that did not rely on inaccurate analog tone generators. After he and Jobs had discovered the tone specifications in documentation at a technical library to which they had access, Woz went to work. The eventual result was perhaps the very first digital blue box — and it worked perfectly.
Captain Crunch taught Wozniak more in-depth blue boxing techniques, like making international calls, and both he and Jobs went deeper into the phreaking scene. Woz’s love of practical jokes even led him to call Vatican City once! He impersonated Henry Kissinger by putting on a fake German accent and asked to speak to the Pope. He got pretty far, but he was finally busted as a phony. So, while he didn’t get to actually talk to the Pope, he got close — and that was what it was all about.
Ultimately, Jobs suggested they make more of the blue boxes and sell them to other college students and enthusiasts. This was their first business venture together. So – you could argue – Apple got its start selling illegal phone tampering equipment. And they did booming business — it would lead them to the incorporation of Apple later.
The role of the Homebrew Computer Club.
The connection between Apple and the hacking scene of the era goes beyond the wider phreaking scene and the construction of blue boxes, though. In the mid-70s, the idea of a “personal computer” was a brand-new concept. Miniaturization had only recently progressed to the point where such an advancement was possible. As a result, computers were largely the domain of dedicated hobbyists and those who worked with them professionally.
Remember how we mentioned that the Apple I needed a whole lot of build time on the part of the user? That was normal back then — and it was an early experience with hand-built computers that inspired Woz to commence work on what would become the Apple I.
So, another quick history lesson: at the very beginning of 1975, the first real “PC” became available to hobbyists: the Altair 8800. It wasn’t a pre-assembled computer like you’d expect, but instead a kit with the core parts one would need. The Altair had no graphical display; instead, it used lights as indicators and switches for programming. After its appearance on the cover of Popular Electronics, mail orders flowed in for the machine, which was groundbreaking for its time.
One of those orders came out of California, placed by an enthusiast in Menlo Park. When the kit arrived, a group of computer hobbyists from the area — Wozniak among them — gathered in a garage to examine the machine and discuss the technology. It was the very first meeting of what would come to be known as the Homebrew Computer Club. The experience here with the Altair would immediately inspire Wozniak to begin creating a computer of his own. He was aware that it could be done better, faster, and provide more utility to the user. Thus, the Apple I was born, almost entirely out of a desire to impress people in the Club.
These physical “hacks” and hardware creations are a far cry from the way we use the word today. Wozniak himself has said that without these computer clubs and the gathering space they provided, there would never have been an Apple computer at all. That would have meant there was nothing for Jobs to project his vision onto, and no Apple II or any of the other products we’ve come to know and love.
If you’re curious about Apple’s history – and the history of Silicon Valley – you cannot overstate the importance of the Homebrew Computer Club.
Times have changed, but the early hacker spirit lives on today.
Phreaking was on its way out as early as the 90s as telephone companies transitioned to “out of band” signaling, handling all the switching with a transmission separate from the main phone line. The switch to digital voice transmission in the early 2000s was the final nail in the coffin for phreaking.
As for hacking, it has and hasn’t changed. Today, most people know “hackers” as the malicious authors of the malware that attacks and infects our computers. Relying on that as our definition is too simple, though —the original spirit of learning to tinker with, modify, and create computers and software still exists. All you need to do is look at DEF CON or any of the other major hacker conventions to see that.
So how can you, today, experience the same kind of community that made Apple possible?
Attending a big convention isn’t the only way to immerse yourself in the hacker culture of today. There are a surprisingly large number of very active weekly hacker and computer enthusiast gatherings around the world. These preserve a spirit similar to the one embodied by the original Homebrew club. They offer an opportunity for you to interact with and learn from others who share similar passions for technology. You can even go a step beyond, though. These groups, and many others, are at the forefront of a new wave of “hackerspaces.”
You’ll also sometimes hear these referred to as “makerspaces”, but they can mean slightly different things. The result for either is the same, though: these are communal spaces where individuals can gather to work individually or within a group on a passion project. It might be hacking together a basic robotics system, tinkering with a coding project, or trying to launch some new software. Many makerspaces encourage the exploration of Arduino-based hardware. The growing popularity of technology like 3D printing is having a significant influence on these spaces, too. As an intersection between art, technology, and design, 3D printing is producing an incredible amount of new ideas.
Technology is always changing. Think back to 10 years ago and everything from computers to phones to TVs all look nearly primitive compared to what we have now. There’s always innovation happening, and there is always someone at the very boundary of cutting edge tech, exploring, experimenting, and innovating. It’s not the only way the best new developments occur, but it’s certainly a major source.
Hackerspaces are often more welcoming than you might expect! Show up with a passion for your projects and a willingness to be an active part of the group. There are major organized spaces as well as small, locally-owned projects run by people who love what they do. Really, what could be closer to emulating the original Homebrew Computer Club than that?
These spaces, and the boundless creativity of those who work within them could be setting the stage for the Apple Computer of tomorrow. We already hear words like “disruptive” thrown around about innovators who bring a radically new product to market. Is there any doubt that Jobs and Woz would have been called “disruptors” in their own time for what Apple accomplished with its first machines? As individuals continue to come together in the spirit of collaboration, who knows — the next Apple might be in its formative stages inside someone’s garage right now!