Perhaps you don’t know John Draper aka “Captain Crunch”, but if you’re using a MacBook or an iPhone today it’s because of him. He and his blue box were a fundamental inspiration for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in making Apple. He’s now in trouble and needs our help. Woz has written this fascinating article so you can understand how he influenced them both and how much we all owe him.
Please read it and make a contribution.Even while the goal has already been surpassed, every dollar counts towards his future and total recovery. — Editor
I met Steve Jobs in the spring of 1971. We hit it off big as friends. I was working for a year, programming, so as not to burden my parents with college expenses for my upcoming 3’rd college year, at Berkeley. The day before school was to start I spotted a magazine that I never read on our dining table. Browsing that magazine I came across an article that I deemed had to be fiction. It exposed a web of bright engineering types setting up all sorts of phone activity inside of the phone network of the day. I was captivated by these fictional characters and instantly they were heroes to me, with more abilities than the big corporations. I was a prankster and social outsider myself so I wished I were one of these strange characters.
Halfway through the article I had to call Jobs and I started reading him parts of the article, including descriptions of this strange character, Captain Crunch. I read a part about Crunch to Jobs, where Crunch had abilities to go ‘around’ the phone company but he was afraid to talk about it, fearful that they were tapping him. He spoke of a noble ambition of trying to discover and expose weaknesses in the system to help Ma Bell make it better. He was a strange character, as were others in that article, but that is how you appear when you are outside of the social mainstream.
Jobs and I did some quick research that very day. The easy technical library to visit on a Sunday was at SLAC, which was the CERN of its time. Smart people tend not to lock doors. We drove into SLAC and found an open door to access their technical library. Actually, on any Sunday it was easy to get into any building in SLAC just by trying doors. When Steve and I discovered that this phone phreaking was real our jaws dropped. It also meant that characters like Crunch were real people, too smart to get caught by the FBI.
Soon thereafter we heard that Crunch had done an interview on KTAO in Los Gatos, CA. Jobs called the station and left a message but we never got called back by Crunch. I designed my own blue box. Even though it was 5 years before we’d start Apple, rules of engineering out of books did not apply to me. In one piece of design magic I had a diode array choose inputs to TTL chips, telling them which tones to generate depending on which button was pressed (1, 2, 3, etc.). I knew enough about the analogue side of these digital chips to realise that every input is also an output, providing some electric current. Through the diode selection matrix I took this bit of current coming FROM the chips and turned on an electronic switch (Darlington transistor arrangement) to provide power to the chips. So chips without both + and – power supplied took inputs, with logical meaning as to the tone to generate, and used those inputs as outputs to drive circuitry that turned the chips on. It took some good understanding of the circuitry inside of the chips but it actually worked. I wish I had been that clever in later designs. The important lesson is that when you do things for your own fun, nothing stops you from ultimate creativity and genius.
We told our parents about this imaginative journey we were on and their only rule was that we don’t use our home phones for phreaking.
I was spreading the phone phreak lore throughout the dorms of Berkeley. I could demonstrate free calls to domestic numbers but I had not cracked the international dialling methods with my blue box. The odd thing is, I was following some vague instructions in the Esquire article the were exactly right and even my first attempt was correct and should have worked. A friend from high school dropped by my dorm room and I filled him with stories of the magic that could be done to the phone system. I described Captain Crunch as one of the leaders. My friend, Dave Hurd (now of the Cornell Hurd band in Austin) told me that he KNEW who Captain Crunch was. I was floored. Even the FBI had not caught Crunch yet. Dave said that he had worked at KKUP in Cupertino and that Crunch had worked there too and was named John Draper.
I would drive home on the weekends and Jobs and I would hang out. In his bedroom, Jobs called KKUP and asked for John Draper. The person who answered said “he dropped out of sight after the Esquire article.” EUREKA! We left a message and 5 minutes later got a call from the real Captain Crunch. We set up a visit from him to my dorm room the next week.
The evening of Crunch’s visit to my dorm (room 110, Norton Hall) was one of the most anxious days of my life. I had built him up all over our dorm and campus as this incredible hero who turned the tables on the largest companies in the world. My vision of Draper was that of a suave socially adept guy, which may have been right in terms of judging others against myself. The person showing up at my dorm room was disheveled and unclean and missing teeth and not the person I had expected. He saw my surprise and announced “I am HE, Captain Crunch.
Crunch looked at my digital blue box and taught me how to place international calls. I was surprised because it was the same method I’d tried on my own. Then Crunch said he wanted to get his special ‘automated’ blue box from his car. I had read the Esquire article and imagined his van to be full of racks of telephone switching equipment and I had to see it, so I asked if I could walk with him out to his car that night. His response was kind of like “why would you want to?” and that made me feel that maybe my visions from the article were wrong. We got to his van and it was virtually empty except for a T-shaped antenna that he would drive around broadcasting “San Jose Free Radio” from.
That night Crunch taught Jobs and I all sorts of phone phreak codes and numbers and tricks. I took notes as we talked until the wee hours in Kips pizza parlor. At that point Jobs and I had to leave to drive back home to Jobs’ house where my Pinto was parked. It’s an hour drive from Berkeley to Los Altos. Crunch was going over to another phone phreak’s home, a guy in Berkeley who called himself something like Groucho (sorry, the real name escapes me right now).
Jobs’ car had a faulty generator and the battery ran down near Hayward. The car lights went off and everything sort of died so Steve pulled over on the side of highway 17. We saw the lights of a gas station nearby. Our plan was to call Groucho and ask for a ride from Crunch back home, as Crunch lived with his parents in Los Gatos. We could have used a quarter for the call but wanted to try our new knowledge of how to make pay phone blue box calls. So Jobs used the blue box in the pay phone. Steve suddenly hung up exclaiming that the operator had come on the line. Keep in mind that we were trying something illegal with little experience. I told Jobs that he had to tell the operator that it was a “data” call and to ignore her light flashing, which is what Crunch had taught us. Again Jobs tried to call Groucho from the pay phone using the blue box. Again Steve hung up quickly and scared when the operator came on the line.
Then a cop car pulled up. Jobs passed me the blue box when the cop wasn’t looking. The cop went past us and shone his flashlight in the bushes, like we might have stashed drugs there. The cop patted me down and asked what the blue box was. The Moog synthesiser for music was a new hot technology and was well known in the press, so I said that it was a music synthesiser. You push buttons and get tones. Touch-tone phones were still almost unheard of, so a device making any sounds would not be thought of for dialling purposes. A second cop asked about the blue box and Jobs and I continued the BS. The cops had us get into the back of their car and we were frightened about where we’d wind up. Then the cop passed the blue box back to me and said “a guy name Moog beat you to it.”.
We did get our ride home with Crunch that night. I got my Pinto and, driving back to Berkeley for classes the next day, fell asleep on Highway 17 around 1 AM, totaling my car. I walked the rest of that night from Oakland to my dorm in Berkeley and told my roommate that it was a good thing I had opted not to pay the $US25 parking fee for the next quarter.
Jobs was very leery of Draper. He felt that Draper was too loose and dangerous and might get us into trouble. Jobs only wanted to sell hand-built blue boxes to make money. I liked meeting up with Crunch more regularly over time because I like interesting people, the sorts you see in movies. He would amaze me with tricks like popping up listening to the FBI phone lines in San Francisco or tapping hook switches on a certain pay phone in Los Altos after 6 PM to get free calls to New York. I didn’t want to rip the phone company off myself (ignoring the fact that we sold blue boxes to people who actually did want to rip off Ma Bell). I just wanted to discover all these crazy unknown amazing things you could do with the phone network.
Realising that you can be clever and do things only a magician could imagine sets you up with an understanding that the impossible can actually be possible. It leads to deep exploration trying to find ways past barriers in tech systems, a hacking mentality. When you do things for yourself, for personal reasons and for fun, you can do the impossible. This thinking and the positive values I attached to it are related to our great digital life and inventions to this day. I meet top tech creators of some of the most important products in our lives. Often they are CEO’s or very high up in companies. And the first thing they want to talk about is their own blue box experience going back in time.
When we started Apple, the phone company monopoly had been split and it was just finally possible that other companies could make devices that attached to the phone network. I felt that it was important for the Apple ][ to do this so I hired the only phone engineer I knew, Captain Crunch. He developed an amazing board. You could have it listen for things like busy signals, all in BASIC. It would be 12 years later than modems finally knew to hang up instantly when they got busy signals.
Crunch got arrested and slapped on the wrist. He got arrested again and slapped harder. The third time he got arrested, he had the same judge who had said “if I ever see you again, you are going to prison.” So now Crunch was in prison, with a lot of time on his hands. He had the Apple ][ that I’d given to him when he worked at Apple. He called me one day and was nearly in tears at the loss of his printer. Letter quality printers had just come out and they were expensive but I offered one to Crunch as a friend. These were the only business quality printers in that age. In prison, Crunch wrote the word processor Easy Writer. When he got out, Apple ][ sales were exploding due to Visicalc, into the business market, and Crunch had the only business quality word processor. He made about a million dollars on it. Eventually, IBM got into the market and made Easy Writer their official word processor.
I have watch as Crunch became a rather astute Macintosh programmer and how he worked on security hardware and software. He would never dare do anything even as illegal as copying a song or using purloined software. He relied on friends, including myself, for support on occasion. He still has the love of the old fun times but he is a capable productive person now. I admire him and those who help him in life. — Woz.
Multiple debilitating health issues landed John Draper in the Hospital (for over a month) where had had to undergo multiple surgeries, rehabilitation programs and even fight for his life (suffered a cardiac arrest under anaesthesia). John is a fighter and managed to overcome the worst; he was released a few days ago and is getting ready to continue his rehabilitation program as he now wonders how he will sustain himself.
Now it’s time for all of us to help Captain Crunch the same way he helped Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, starting a chain of events that got us all here. We should all honour and help him for that.
Please contribute here. Even while the funding target has been surpassed, he needs a lot more support than that. Every dollar counts. I bet we can all make it go to $US50,000, although I’m secretly hoping that the Zuckerbergs, Brins, and Pages of this world would each donate several times that amount. Not to talk about Apple itself.
Please pass this article around or send the link to his crowdfunding campaign page to your friends. Thank you!