Joybubbles, and the history of phone phreaking

Last year, I posted about the passing of a legendary phone phreaker named Joybubbles. He was a blind and unusually gifted recluse who sought to surround himself in life with things that reminded him of childhood. BB reader Phil Lapsley first alerted us to news of his death, and has since written about what it was like to have the responsibility of cleaning out Joybubbles' home after he died, and the things discovered there. Phil says,

It's been about a year since Joybubbles passed away, and I wanted to let you know my project to document the history of phone phreaking continues. Just this week I finally launched a web site at There is also a blog at I posted my essay about cleaning out Joybubbles' apartment there.
Here's an excerpt from Phil's phreaking history site:
What is phone phreaking?
A phone phreak is someone who loves exploring the telephone system and experimenting with it to understand how it works. Phone phreaking got its start in the late 1950s. Its golden age was the late 1960s and early 1970s.
And here is an excerpt from his essay about Joybubbles.
The smell is the first thing you notice. It's certainly the first thing Joybubbles would have noticed. To my nose, the air in the apartment building is a miasma, an amalgam of the smells of stale food, cigarette smoke, and grease. But I'm not Joybubbles -- and one of his favorite expressions was, "This stinks so good!" Joybubbles loved swimming in heavily chlorinated swimming pools for this very reason. He loved smells, in all their varieties.

The fact that there are no lightbulbs in his apartment is the second thing you notice. But it's certainly not something Joybubbles would have noticed -- blind since birth, he didn't spend a lot of time noticing light bulbs. Joybubbles once told of exploring a hotel and finding his way to its heavily chlorinated swimming pool after hours, in the dark. The angry hotel manager finally caught him and demanded, "How did you find your way to the pool? There's no way you could have gotten here! The lights were off!" Joybubbles just smiled.

The clutter and chaos and insanity in the tiny apartment is the third thing you notice. What's this? Oh, an old military AUTOVON telephone, complete with the magic extra Touch-Tone button labeled "FO ("Flash Override") that Generals were supposed to use to alert the President in the event of war.


  1. …Oh, the days of my freshman year in college, and my first phreaking x-pedition. We hacked a payphone in the ROTC building, patched into the handset receiver, ran cable up to the Navy “Fantail” break room, and everyone got to listen to the NASA PAO press loop for the first Columbia mission in 1981 for free.

  2. Lather was thirty years old today,
    They took away all of his toys.
    His mother sent newspaper clippings to him,
    About his old friends who’d stopped being boys.

  3. I was lucky enough to interview Joybubbles about ten years ago, which I published in my zine at the time. I’ve just re-posted the entirety of that interview on my blog if anyone is interested! [Link]

  4. Joybubbles was born Josef Carl Engressia, Jr. The Last HOPE conference had one of the presentation halls named after him. (This is not in the wikipedia page, nor in the discussion page… I may just have to add it some time.)

    Also, mostly unrelated, the phone system is called Autovon, and the highest precedence level is Flash Override. Good picture at the Wikipedia page for it: This corresponds to the ABCD keys on the DTMF pad. The character from the movie Hackers named Crash Override makes reference to this function.

  5. My own, personal AUTOVON telephone.

    Partially obscured is the matching red Western Electric Touch-A-Matic dialer.

    Not in the picture, the matching red Western Electric 4A SpeakerPhone.

    Needless to say, using the AUTOVON telephone makes ordering a pizza delivery all the more elite!

    R.I.P. Joybubbles! I never met you, but you were an inspiration.

  6. ” (This is not in the wikipedia page, nor in the discussion page… I may just have to add it some time.)”

    …Here’s hoping some wikinazi punk doesn’t revert the edit claiming some crap about “original research” :-)

  7. @#2: Be careful with quoting bands like that, you’re tipping your age!

    The phone networks were remarkably crude back in those (Lather) days. Auto-long-distance (without an operator) was still new.

    The original edition of Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” had a section on how to attach a capacitor to your phone so that, when someone called you long-distance, the network wouldn’t know you’d picked up, and wouldn’t bill the call. Seems Abbie knew a Phreak or two?

  8. #7, JPHILBY: There’s actually quite a history with Abbie Hoffman, TAP, YIPL and the like. If you want a character to research, Cheshire Catalyst is a great person to start with.

    (Self-plug, here he is at The Last HOPE: )

    You’d be surprised at the connections between hacking and political action, although it seems that they do this much more (and better?) in different parts of Europe.

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