Joybubbles, 58, Peter Pan of Phone Hackers, Dies

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

If you made up a fictional character like Joybubbles, no one would find him the least bit believable. Joybubbles, 58, Peter Pan of Phone Hackers, Dies:

Joybubbles (the legal name of the former Joe Engressia since 1991), a blind genius with perfect pitch who accidentally found he could make free phone calls by whistling tones and went on to play a pivotal role in the 1970s subculture of “phone phreaks,” died on Aug. 8 in Minneapolis.
Josef Carl Engressia Jr. was born May 25, 1949, and moved often because his father was a school-picture photographer. At 4 or 5, he learned to dial by using the hookswitch like a telegraph key. Four years later, he discovered that he could disconnect a call by whistling. He found this out when he imitated a sound in the background on a long-distance call and the line cut off. It turned out that his whistle precisely replicated a crucial phone company signal, a 2,600-cycles-per-second tone.

Joybubbles’s parents had no phone for five years because of their son’s obsession. Later, his mother encouraged it by reading him technical books. His high school yearbook photo showed him in a phone booth.

By the time he was a student at the University of South Florida, Joybubbles was dialing toll-free or nonworking numbers to reach a distant switching point. Unbeknownst to telephone operators, he could use sounds to dial another number, free. He could then jump anywhere in the phone system. He was disconnected from college after being caught making calls for friends at $1 a call. In 1971, he moved to Memphis, where he was convicted of phone fraud. In Millington, Tenn., he was hired to clean phones, a job he hated. In 1975, he moved to Denver to ferret out problems in Mountain Bell’s network.

He tired of that and moved to Minneapolis on June 12, 1982, partly because that date’s numerical representation of 6-12 is the same as the city’s area code. He advertised for people yearning to discuss things telephonic and weaved a web of phone lines to accommodate them. He lived on Social Security disability payments and part-time jobs like letting university agriculture researchers use his superb sense of smell to investigate how to control the odor of hog excrement.

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