The strange genius of Joybubbles

REMEMBERING JOYBUBBLES, WHO DIED ON THIS DAY, AUGUST 8, 2007

FATHER OF PHONE PHREAKING

Joe Engressia had a super genius IQ of 174 (genius is 140), and perfect pitch which enabled him to dial free long distance phone calls by whistling a certain frequency.

Joe is better known as Joybubbles, the father of ‘phone phreaking.’ He used his unique talent to call people around the world and “spread the joy” in his heart.

Joe was a blind seven-year-old when he discovered in 1957 that he could whistle at a certain pitch (2600 Hz,* an electromagnetic wave traveling at 2600 cycles per second, equivalent to the fourth E above middle C) that would stop a dialed phone recording.

Back in the days, AT&T used automatic switches for tone dialing that included some tones which were for internal company use only.

One internal-use tone was the tone of 2600 Hz that caused a telephone switch to automatically react as if the call had ended, leaving an open carrier line. That open line could then be used by a ‘phone phreaker’ to make free long-distance and international calls.

Phone phreaking was a trend among teenagers of that time, many of them blind, who created an undercover cult using pseudonyms such as Jack the Rip-off. One of their mischievous tricks was to call recently divorced couples simultaneously and then listen to them accuse each other of ringing.

Phone Phreaks also had a gadget called a ‘black box’ that they used to call 800 numbers and re-route the calls to anywhere in the world.

The fad caught the attention of Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to the extent that Jobs said if there had been no black box, there would be no Apple.

Joe Engressia was born in 1949 in Richmond, Virginia. As a child in school he was sexually abused by a teacher, a psychological scar that would lead him to change his name much later in life to the innocent childlike Joybubbles.

THE ‘WHISTLER’ GETS BUSTED

When he was a student at the University of South Florida in the late 1960s he was nicknamed ‘Whistler’ for his ability to dial long distance calls by whistling the right frequency. After dialing the number he would sell the open line to other students for a dollar each.

A Canadian telephone operator caught onto his trick and reported him. He was briefly suspended and fined $25. He later graduated with a degree in philosophy.

A phone company noticed his phreaking activities in 1968, and an employee of the company monitored his phone calls and reported him to the FBI.

G-men raided his house and he was charged with malicious mischief and received a suspended sentence. That ended his phone phreaking career.

He moved to Minneapolis, where he lived on his Social Security disability pension and worked as a test subject for scent-intensity research. He became an ordained minister of a church he founded — the Church of Eternal Childhood — and operated a one-man nonprofit support group for people who wanted to rediscover and re-experience their childhood.

He was 42 when he legally changed his name to Joybubbles, saying that he wanted to put his past and the abuse he had suffered as a child behind him.

Thereafter, he was listed in the local phone directory as ‘Joybubbles, I Am.’


* Named after Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1857-1894).


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