Edward Tufte on Aaron Swartz and his own hacking career

Designer and theorist Edward Tufte was a friend and mentor of Aaron Swartz's. At Saturday's memorial to Aaron at the Cooper Union in NYC, Tufte remembered both Aaron and his own hacking career, inventing "blue boxes" and using them to make illegal calls on AT&T's network, and wondered about what would have become of him had he run into the same prosecutorial zeal as Aaron faced. Here's a quote from Dan Nguyen's transcript of the Livestream video feed:

…[Bowen] then became president of the Mellon Foundation and he had retired from the Mellon foundation. But he was asked by he foundation to handle the problem of JSTOR and Aaron.

So I wrote Bill Bowen an email about it. And I said first that Aaron is a treasure. And then I told a personal story about how I had done some illegal hacking as a student and had been caught at it and what happened.

In 1962, my housemate and I invented the first blue box. That’s a device that allows for free, undetectable, unbillable long-distance telephone calls.

And we got this up. And played around with it and at the end of our research came when we completed was what we thought was the longest long distance phone call ever made, which was from Palo Alto to New York time of day, via Hawaii.

Edward Tufte’s defense of Aaron Swartz and the “marvelously different”


  1. I posted on a MIT forum about this, asking weather or not people and staff thought an apology was in order for the institutions role in circumstances surrounding his death. While i didn’t get an official response, the outpouring of sympathy, anger and emotion from the students was palpable.

    My own grief is turning to anger. I recall a quote from Mark Getty – “Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century” as interpreted by Sebastian Lutgert in Steal this Film 2, he describes it as a declaration of war. I feel Aaron was one of the first casualties.

    …While writing this post, I just replayed the film (Steal this Film 2) to verify the names and the quote above. Aaron is there giving it socks at 19:50. It’s haunting,

    The more I look back, the more I see he was at the core of the information freedom movement, and the less doubt I have that he was targeted.Might be in interesting study to have a quick where are they now type status of all the participants in that movie.

  2. The arrogance and basic lack of human decency, on the part of Carmen Ortiz and her lackeys, are really stunning.  Aaron Swartz is not the only case her office mishandled: see Carmen Ortiz’s Sordid Rap Sheet, http://whowhatwhy.com/2013/01/17/carmen-ortizs-sordid-rap-sheet/

    Petition the Obama administration to: Remove United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/remove-united-states-district-attorney-carmen-ortiz-office-overreach-case-aaron-swartz/RQNrG1Ck

  3. Well, that’s one I hadn’t heard before. I knew blue boxes were made famous by Captain Crunch, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard Tufte to claim he was the one who “invented” them.

    At the very least it’s odd … Tufte was studying political science and statistics through 1968. Now he could have been an electrical phreak, at the same time, but a quick google tells me he was doing the “soft” sciences at Stanford far past 1963. Anyone got more info on this odd claim?

  4. Just as a point of historical accuracy, it should be noted that Edward Tufte, regardless of his claim, did _not_ “invent” or create the first blue box. 

    According to the new book, “Exploding the Phone,” by Phil Lapsley, on the history of phone phreaking from 1960 to 1980, notes it was Ralph Barclay.

    Barclay, an 18-year old college student at the time, was walking through the engineering library at Washington State College when he spotted the November 1960 issue of the Bell System Technical Journal (BSTJ), which had only been out for a week, and when Barclay noticed on the cover of the journal an article entitled “Signalling Systems for Control of Telephone Switching,” he became very intrigued.

    In that seminal article, which was almost the first (and certainly most detailed and revealing article) AT&T/Bell ever published on the new in-band, multi-frequency (MF) signalling system AT&T had just begun to implement a year or so beforehand,  the BSTJ laid out the frequencies of the dual-tone or MF pairs for each dialed number, and how AT&T long-distance operators would also use “ST” and “KP” audio signals to make long-distance toll calls for customers from their semi-automated switchboards. 

    Bell even published  basic schematics in that article for the signalling circuitry involved in generating the MF tones used over the voice circuit to make toll calls. D’oh!

    Thus, Bell itself publicly exposed the “billion-dollar flaw” in their newly implemented switching and signalling system, as the BSTJ was commonly available through most college engineering and other university libraries. 

    Barclay, a rather bright and insightful lad, apparently, had then gone on, after reading the article noted, within a month to create a duplicate of Bell’s signalling circuitry using analog components to fabricate the first known “blue box,” and to make unlimited, free long-distance phone calls. 

    So, Barclay was actually the first, and by  December, 1960 was using his blue box to make free phone calls. 

    He also happened to have painted the metal enclosure box for his device a lovely shade of blue, hence the term “blue box.” 

    1. Thanks for clarifying. I was wondering why would he say that? Maybe it was an ill-delivered joke that he figured hackers would ‘get.’

    2. After listening to the video, it could be argued that Tufte said he invented “a” blue box, which could reasonably be taken to mean developed or created one. Given his incredible accomplishments, general reputation for good, absence of history of doing evil, and given the circumstances, I am inclined to give him a huge pass.

      Thank you for the wonderful history of Barclay and his blue box, however!

      1. Actually, after listening to the video again myself, I don’t think it _can_ be logically argued “…that Tufte said he invented ‘a’ blue box, which could reasonably be taken to mean developed or created one,” since here’s what he actually said, verbatim: 

        “In 1962, my housemate and I invented the first blue box.”

        Not “a,” but “the first.” 

        And, as Eric Hellman notes on his blog, “What Tufte told me was that the AT&T security guy told them that while they weren’t the first to figure out how to make a ‘blue box’, they were the first undergraduates he’d encountered that had done it.”

        So, Tufte _ knew_ he was not the inventor of the blue box, but said so anyway at Aaron Swartz’s memorial. 

        You may be inclined to give Tufte “a huge pass,” but the facts are plain. 

        It’s also not the first time Tufte has made this false claim:

        Imram Akbar, on his website “Pattern Recognition,” has a Dec. 18, 2006 entry on his site about attending a lecture by Tufte at Stanford a few weeks before, and Akbar noted one of the things said at Tufte’s lecture was “Claimed to have invented the ‘blue box’ in 1962, before Captain Crunch, and was raided by AT&T”

        It’s one thing to conflate or confabulate one’s role in inventing something, it’s another to knowingly make a false claim, especially when you know it’s not true.

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