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Telephone buttons Telephone buttons (melloveschallah/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

In the mid-1950's, a blind seven-year-old boy named Joe Engressia Jr. made a discovery that changed his own life and many others. While idly dialing information on the family telephone, he heard a high-pitched tone in the background and started whistling along with it. Slowly, he learned to recognize all kinds of tones, pulses, clicks and beeps that the phone system used to talk to itself. And when he got good at decoding those sounds, he became the grandaddy of a whole movement of like-minded obsessives known as "phone phreaks." Phreaking-historian Phil Lapsley explains how Joe and his phreak-brothers explored the hidden arteries of Ma Bell. And Joe's friend Steven Gibb helps us understand how telephony was the key to Joe's great escape--out of the adult world and into an idyllic childhood he never had, complete with a new name.


Phil Lapsley

Produced by:

Sean Cole

Comments [27]

Julie from Kalamazoo, MI

This one is my fave RadioLab episode of all time, so far.

Feb. 21 2018 01:52 PM
Tom from Munich

Fascinating story I just stumbled upon an FBI report on Joseph Egressia and the whole hacking the phone case! Seems like he didn't just get journalists interested in himself. can't remember if this is mentioned in the piece

Sep. 13 2016 09:55 AM
Rick from Minneapolis

Tod Whatiker?

What a doltman.

Nice piece.

Aug. 29 2016 05:14 PM

Whether or not the allogations against Micheal Jackson were true, it seems he kind of had the same type of late life wanting to be a kid again because of his abusive childhood and wanting to "go back in time" to what he wanted when he was a kid.

Jul. 15 2015 02:12 AM
Tod Whitaker

You guys ruined a good story with your triteness and cheesiness. Try not to write like children and show some respect for your audience.

Nov. 25 2014 10:31 PM
Lisa Holiday from Rockledge, FL

You reminded me that we turned our phone into an intercom. In the 1960s, my mom would dial 660 (pause) 6 and then "hung up" by putting her finger on the receiver causing the phone would ring. I would pick up and there was a noise (signal or something) but, like the teenagrs, it was tone but we were able to hear enough that my mom would be able give me a message Like "Dinner's ready" or something like that.

Thanks for the memory

Aug. 26 2014 10:22 PM
Fred from Portland, OR

I built several blue boxes in the 1970s. I once disconnected a long distance call by whistling that high E after an argument with my mom

Your story was inaccurate about the way tones are used to represent numbers in the old switching system. The in-band tone is the only one that was a single tone. All the others, the tones for the numbers one through zero, and the other two required tones (one for the beginning of a number sequence and the one for the end) were all PAIRS of tones. As such, they could not be whistled.

Aug. 25 2014 04:28 PM
Alice from Denver

I really enjoyed hearing this program today. I knew Joe in the mid-1970's in Denver. I interviewed Joe and wrote an article about him for "Life on Capitol Hill", a small community newspaper.

Aug. 23 2014 08:06 PM
El alambre

While living in Barcelona in the late 1970s, locals introduced me to "el alambre". If you bought a short, stiff silver wire, and tried enough pay phones, you could find one where the wire could somehow connect you with putting in coins. This technique allowed me to keep in touch with friends and family around the world. Not nearly as innovative as whistling my way to a phone connection, but still magical at the time.

Aug. 23 2014 04:58 PM
Lee Drager

Loved the informative and interesting discussion about Joe Engressio. But, wondered about the first use of 555-1212. I cannot find an answer, but did it exist in the 50s/60s?

Aug. 23 2014 03:24 PM
Trish from Minneapolis, MN

Well, I must admit Radiolab is a fairly recent discovery for me, so I've been combing the archives & downloading old episodes to my iPhone in order to devour as much as I possibly can! Today, I happened to listen to this particular episode and it made me fall even further in love with Radiolab!

This episode brought back some very fond memories of calling the Zzzzyzzerrific Funline on a regular basis as a kid. Wow, I hadn't thought of that in I listened to the story, I wondered if Joybubbles could be the same person that ran the Funline. I remember discovering it as the very last entry of the Minneapolis phonebook one day. Of course, I had to call the number to see what it was all about, and it became a regular pastime for me...I never knew much about the man behind the Funline, it was great fun listening to his biography! Thank you, Radiolab!

Jun. 04 2014 03:29 PM
Greg Ottensmeyer from Baltimore

Thanks for telling Joe's story and explaining the legacy he left to all phone phreaks and hackers. Phone phreaks were important because they did the reconnaissance necessary to fight and win the battle between "would be competitors" against the monolithic monopoly that was the Bell System.

All of us owe the freedom of communication we enjoy today, including cellphones and internet, to those that risked their personal freedoms to insist on the right to compete in an open market. The movement began with the 1968 Carterphone Decision and ended in 1984 when the Federal Courts dismantled the World's largest monopoly, AT&T's Bell System.

Note: in 1968 a 3 minute long distance call cost $5.00 and AT&T Long Lines was the only long distance provider.

Jan. 17 2014 09:15 PM
William Borgen from Minneapolis, MN

I knew Joybubbles.
We lived in the same apartment bldg. on 22nd. street off Nicollet in
He lived on the 1st floor.
If I was passing thru the foyer I'd stop
and talk while he sat in a foyer chair waiting
for his Metro van ride.
I have electrical engineering background so
we talked shop. He explained his history ESS/phone hacking,
but he told me with out going into too many details
how he had done this and that as a phone freak, how had he
a "run in" with the FBI, and that now he was calling kids
and leaving stories on the phone for people to listen to.
He was also a big braille reader-very fast too. He would get his books and newspapers in braille on paper, and he had access to a braille terminal where he could type to people and would receive messages with a braille strip with rows of pins that I believe vibrate or poke up in braille patterns for him to swipe his fingers across.
He did mention abuse as a kid, and that he came from Florida after
dropping out of a math major in college.

These meetings were around 1999? to 2005. He told me that had been suffering from chest pains by the time I moved out. He was very sanguine about his deteriorating health, he didn't want to bother
with medical help. I never entered his apartment, but I
occasionally looked into his apartment while I helped him carry groceries.
His apartment was pretty disorganized but not dirty. I also
noticed piles of cassettes and few wires running here and there.
Since he was blind his apartment was dark all the time. He never told me his birth name. He seemed like a very intelligent, mellow, nice guy.

Jul. 27 2013 04:45 PM
Jansen Barron from NYS

great storytelling. now tell me someone serious and talented has the movie rights to joybubbles. just great.

Jul. 27 2013 01:53 PM
Asaf Soof from Briarwood, Queens

Guys the show on Oct 25 is on sale NOW. for a whopping $75 or $65 per ticket. This is great for Upper East Side parents for the rest of us this is impossible. Radio Lab on Public radio is for the rich elite from Park Slope. Not fun for the rest of us.

Jul. 27 2013 12:40 PM
Holly from Dallas, Texas

Really sweet story!

Jun. 18 2012 10:42 AM
Elizabeth from Los Angeles, CA

I wanted to listen to the entire story; however, I have a dog and didn't know when the high pitch sound would come on again... is there a transcript of the show to read?

Jun. 10 2012 04:29 PM
Earl Earp from Denver, Colorado

In late 1976 or early 1977 I was working in Mountain Bell's Switching Control Center, which monitored all #1 ESS machines in Colorado. One Saturday afternoon I received a call from a guy identifying himself as "High-Rise Joe". He told me his story about whistling through the in-band signaling used by telephone companies at that time. He explained that he had phone friends throughout the world and had discovered a problem with the translation tables in one of our Denver main ESS offices, which was keeping him from contacting a friend in Peru. I refered the problem to my astonished and doubtful supervisor. Upon investigation Joe was right and we corrected the problem. I last heard of Joe when Mountain Bell hired him to keep him from attending Public Utilities Commision hearings. Thanks to Radiolab for giving me more insight into a very unique and interesting person.

Jun. 08 2012 02:49 PM
Dave from Northern Virginia, USA

I was fortunate to know Joybubbles (the name Joe took to get away from his troubled past) for a few years before he died. A mutual friend introduced me to him. It was a shame that I only knew him for a short amount of time for his untimely passing because he was a great person once you got to know him. He was a very strange person and a times you would wonder why you would ever want to know him, but people who knew him knew he had a good heart and was willing to help people and teach other what he knew. The world lost a great person when Joybubbles died. As others have said, I hope he is in a better place where he can escape his demons that had affected him for so long.

Apr. 28 2012 03:41 PM from duesseldorf, germany

yo i am former member of redsector canada later trsi have rooots to the hacking scene so i wonder
if ya already have an synchrostudio for german i probably can make a contact to time warner , as our
gfx artist working for the,m,

just email me to or calll me at 49-211-97716103

Mar. 30 2012 08:36 PM
Maranda Wodzinski from Pennsylvania

Please check out the film Code 2600-we were fortunate enough to have interviewed Phil Lapsley about phone phreaking. Thanks Radiolab, I really enjoyed this show!
Twitter: #Code2600
Facebook: Code 2600

Mar. 28 2012 04:24 PM
Greg from Australia

Dear Radiolab

Would you mind posting a list of the music and artists included in each podcast?

As in this episode, I often think 'What a great track' - but have no way of investigating the artist further.

Kind regards

Mar. 06 2012 04:33 AM
Emily from Washington State

Wowee -- a friend and I used to call his Zzzzyzzerrific Funline when we were kids in Minneapolis. He would leave very long, rambling, funny, fascinating outgoing greetings on his answering machine. He talked a lot about being totally blind from birth, about the work he did with terminally ill children, and whatever else was on his mind. After the beep, you could leave a message or not, as you chose. My friend left her number, so he called her back. They struck up a friendship.

He'd given the line that name so it would always be the last entry in the phone book. Every message would start: "It's got Zizz and it's Terrific, it's Zzzzyzzerrific! Z-Z-Z-Z-Y-Z-Z, E-R-R, I-F-I-C!"

I had no idea about the phreaking or any of the magnificence that followed. Thank you so much for doing this story. Here's a little more love for a sweet, loving man.

Mar. 05 2012 10:19 PM

As I listened to this story, my heart started racing. I grew up just outside of Denver in the mid 80's and I remembered the weird thing that would happen when people would "cross-lines." One afternoon after I was a finishing a phone call with a friend, I was just about to hang-up when I heard a man's voice say hello who said his name was "Joe." We talked for a few minutes and he was very nice. We scheduled another time to speak again the next day at 2pm. After that, we never spoke again, but I would pick up the phone every now and then to see if he was there. I doubt very much it was Joybubbles, but I haven't thought of that time in years. I never knew how intentional it might have been for someone to reach out to me. In my young mind, it just seemed like a freak occurrence over the telephone lines.

Feb. 29 2012 11:58 AM
Antonio from Durham, NC

This was a cool story but that high-pitched whistling noise hurt my ears. At other times while listening to this show I've found sound effects jarring and distracting. I'm a big fan, but please be mindful of the sound editing.

Feb. 29 2012 11:35 AM
Chris from South Pasadena, CA

Such a sad story. I hope JoyBubbles found the peace and happiness he was looking for before he died.

Feb. 26 2012 12:09 AM
Duane Wise from Boulder, CO

If memory serves, "High-Rise Joe" often called the late Alan Berg on KOA talk radio here in Denver. They had many fascinating conversations on the inner workings of the phone system. Now I know his last name. Very cool storytelling--thanks Radiolab!

Feb. 21 2012 12:49 PM

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