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It’s a Phone Phreak’s Life! Gaming Ma Bell . . .

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Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, subscribing to magazines was a big deal. Every family took pride in having a slough of magazines arriving at their home and reading them was a pleasant way to stay informed and pass a lazy afternoon.

My mom subscribed to McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Vogue and some other fashion magazines; my dad, who was a pilot, subscribed to a bunch of different magazines. There was Trade-A-Plane, a tabloid showing planes for sale across the world printed on yellow newsprint. It always had a sixth-page sized single-panel pen-and-ink cartoon on the first page/cover, and that publication printed a cartoon of mine in 1962.

As a fourth-grader, this was an enormous deal for me (I was now a published cartoonist!!!) and my dad was stunned when he saw it in his magazine. He also got Flying magazine and whatever else was available concerning airplanes, along with Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, True, Argosy, Reader’s Digest, and, of course, National Geographic. The family also got Life, TV Guide, Look and the Saturday Evening Post. We loved them all.

I don’t recall my brother, Jeffrey, subscribing to anything, but I subscribed to Mad, American Heritage and a couple of Superman-family comics. My favorite was the magazine put out by the folks at the Boy Scouts of America: Boys’ Life.

Boy's Life Covers

The Boys’ Life of my day was a terrific read. Not only did it have stories about hunting for fossils in the Far West or what it was like to be a cadet at West Point or what was happening next at NASA; it also had some top-notch comic-strip features that I looked forward to seeing every month.

Space Conq2

Several cartoon features were promotional comic-strip-type ads by big companies. My favorite was the adventures of Chip Martin, College Reporter, which was sponsored by Bell Telephone and had art by the young Neal Adams, who went on to revolutionize the look of comic books in the late 1960s. His slick, clean style really caught my eye.

Chip Martin 1960-10 pt1

Chip Martin 1960-10 pt2

One unanticipated result of all this info pouring into the homes of kids of the early 1960s was that it gave some of us naughty ideas. We may have been Boy Scouts, but we were still boys with time on our hands and vivid imaginations and we came up with some creative ways to have fun, as you will see.

Most of my readers weren’t around in the days of no-such-thing-as-a-cell-phone when most telephones had rotary dials and were wired to a wall and there was one big phone company that made certain that long-distance phone calls cost a fortune, so the following may be hard for them to imagine: Many of us kids, including a couple of brainiac nerds named Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, got interested in computers by way of our attempts to hack free long-distance telephone service from the Bell telephone monopoly. We proudly called ourselves phone phreaks, and that little community, with its mimeographed newsletters passed around schools or head shops on the sly, is where I first heard of Jobs and Gates, years before Apple or Microsoft were even dreamed of.

Here’s a grainy picture of future Apple computer founders Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak playing with their phone-hacking toys.

Jobs and Wozniak

In the early 1970s, we all had trick homemade electronic blue- or black-boxes that could get us into a Bell long-distance trunk line for free; they were made of pilfered organ keys that could replicate the duotone sounds that controlled a telephone switchboard. We scoured the local Radio Shacks for little goodies that might be put to creative use.

We were astonished when we discovered that a freebie plastic whistle that came in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal could get you into the free long-distance circuits, too, and those whistles were much sought after and in the pockets of many a phone phreak in those days. We loved getting something free from Ma Bell! Just blow your Cap’n Crunch whistle– mine was a baby-blue one– into a telephone handset microphone and you can call anywhere in the world for free! Take that, Ma Bell! Want to talk for hours to a girl who goes to school several area codes away for free? NO PROBLEM!!! Just use my handy blue Cap’n Crunch whistle, my friend!!!

Capn Crunch whistle

Enough true confessions; here are some Bell Telephone comics from the very early 1960s, drawn by Neal Adams, that show the phones of the future! WOW!!!

Chip Martin 1962-10 pt1

Chip Martin 1962-10 pt2

Chip Martin 1962-11

Chip Martin 1962-11 pt2

Of course, all that Up Ma Bell! stuff was very illegal, but we felt as though a monopoly like the phone company was fair game. And it was a game: Bell Labs employed short-haired smart guys in suits and ties and we were long-haired smart guys in jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts matching wits with them. Many phone phreaks later worked for the many phone companies that came into being after the government shattered the Bell Telephone monopoly. Those ex-phreaks knew phones and how they worked.

Other ex-phreaks, like Jobs, Wozniak and Gates, used the skills they learned by soldering electronic phone-phreaking gizmos to create the first personal computers. This ex-phreak used those computers to change how folks made maps or colored comic books. At some point, even the weird turn pro.

No Words; Lots of Laughs!

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Patty is up in Hanover babysitting Sophie while Neenie, Greg and Maddie are in Philadelphia. Instead of playing guitar tonight with the Usual Suspects, I’m sitting at home with Murphy (high winds make him nervous and I don’t want to leave him by himself). As Murph and I try to ignore the winds, I’m laughing my head off at videos of an unusual pantomime comedian. His name is George Carl and there are several great videos of him on YouTube:

I recommend that you go full screen on the video. This particular one is from a 1986 Tonight Show.

Thanks to Mark Evanier, TV-show and comic-book writer (everything from Scooby-Doo and Welcome Back, Kotter to the Blackhawk comic books), historian and all-around genius at large, for pointing us in Mr. Carl’s direction! I owe you a stack of Gold Key Dick Van Dyke Show comics for that, Mark!

Jim’s Nature Corner: Know Your Moths, Part 2

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My son, Aaron, creates skillful digital imagery, as a previous post spotlighted. Below is the first photography I’ve seen from him. It’s a photo he took of the outside of our basement door with a Luna moth (actias luna) perched on the window:

AA's Moth

It’s a pleasing photo; I like the soft colors and the different textures. The weathered doorknob and the bare wood where the knob has rubbed the old door over the years add interest and contrast. It also provides a sense of scale; everyone knows how large a doorknob is.

As in my earlier post about moths, I have to provide a little bit of background info: Lunas are silkworm moths, and one of the largest moths of North America; some can have a wingspan of four inches. They only live for a week. Seems a pity. The round markings on their wings are said to resemble eyes for scaring off predators.

Nice photo, Aaron!

Coordination Is a Beautiful Thing . . .

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. . . if and when it exists!

Street Activity

Lurching into its third month, the Ingraham Street construction in Hyattsville continues.

Having put in spanking-new sewer-feeder pipes, which required tearing up the street that had been newly paved two years ago, the WSSC’s contractors are hard at work today. They’ve replaced a lot of the concrete curbing that had been damaged in the last two months. They’re replacing driveway aprons that were messed up (including ours). They plan, by the end of the week, to have a newly paved street for us, curb to curb, as they put it.

Isn’t that nice? I think so.

New Apron 1

What strikes me as bizarre is that the following week, the Washington Gas contractors plan to tear up a chunk of the brand-new street to replace the gas lines damaged last month; these lines serve the house next door and one across the street.

Honest to God. Tearing up a week-old street.

Hyattsville’s mayor, Marc Tartaro, who is a hard-working and intelligent person, responded to some of us in an email that the city has little control over what the public utilities do to our streets. Marc promised to try to get the utilities to coordinate their efforts to avoid having to patch a brand-new road surface, but I got the sense that he may not be able to do it.

Hyattsville Communications Director Abby Sandel with Mayor Marc Tartaro. Photo by Chris Suspect.

City Communications Director Abby Sandel, Mayor Marc Tartaro. Photo: Chris Suspect.

Sometimes you just have to laugh because crying does no good. Updates to follow!

UPDATE; TUESDAY MORNING:

This is good news!

Getting To The Gas

It appears to me that our mayor, Marc Tartaro, has managed to do what I frankly thought was impossible: The contractors are digging on the street this morning, which implies to me that the gas main is being repaired before the street will be totally repaved!

So, our snazzy new street might stay snazzy looking for a while.

Thanks to Marc, his staff, Washington Gas, WSSC and all the contractors! Good work!

FURTHER UPDATE:

As impossible as this is to believe, today’s giant hole in the street is being dug by the WSSC contractors exactly where the Washington Gas folks need their hole to be dug, but the gas line isn’t being replaced today. This particular hole is to repair a sewage line not the gas line.

So, I spoke too soon! The new street will be torn up according to the original schedule, one week after being totally repaved.

Bureaurocracy wins! How could I have doubted it?!?!?

Sheesh!!!

Is Twitter the CB Radio Fad of the 21st Century?

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I suspect so; it seems kinda goofy, too hip by half and annoying. Who really cares what you’re ordering at the coffee shop? I tried it for, I believe, three days.

Many of the folks tweeting around now may not remember how hip Citizen’s Band radios were in the United States around 1976-1978. They were hugely popular in that time before the internet and cell phones.

CB Radio

Perhaps spurred by the C.W. McCall song, Convoy, and certainly spurred by the Smokey and the Bandit movies, folks all over had these radios installed under their car’s dash and sent in their coupon to the U.S. government for a license to use it. Then the hipster had to learn how to talk on the thing, which was an art form. Anything had to be said in a fake Arkansas accent if at all possible.

 

Here’s The Bandit as played by Burt Reynolds:

That's a big 10-4, Snowman!

Very important was your CB radio name, or “handle.” Much thought was given to this important item, much like screen names today. My handle, of course, was “Boy Howdy.”

Much of the CB radio traffic had to do with highway travel and avoiding police while speeding. Some valuable info, like traffic jams, closed roads, speed traps or other things to avoid, was sometimes provided.

I worked with a guy who couldn’t afford air conditioning for his car, when cars often didn’t come with it as standard equipment, or a CB radio. He bought a broken microphone with a coiled cord, rolled up his windows in the Florida heat and drove around hoping to look cool. Didn’t work. He’s probably a super tweeter today.

Some CB enthusiasts had high-power transmitters on their radios; I knew several people with radios so powerful that keying the mike could make a nearby fluorescent tube light up even if it wasn’t connected to a fixture!

After about 1978, all the excitement was over and CB radios were as old-school and unhip as eight-track tape players, multiple gold chains, mullet haircuts and vinyl tops on automobiles.

CB radios famously had their own lingo. Here’s a sample of what was considered cool twenty-five years before LOL, ROTFL, BRB and so on:
10-4: Affirmative. Can also be used to denote agreement (“That’s a big 10-4.”)
10-7: Out of commission
10-20 (more often simply “20”): Location, as in “My 20 is I-95 at exit 13.”
Anklebiters: Children
Bear: Police officer
Bear in the air: Police aircraft
Bear taking pictures: Police with radar
Breaker: Telling other CB users that you’d like to start a transmission on a channel. May be succeeded by the channel number, indicating that anyone may acknowledge (“Breaker one-nine” refers to channel 19, the most widely used among truck drivers).
Clean and green: No police or obstructions ahead
Convoy: Group of three or more truckers in a row, usually exceeding the speed limit
County mountie: Deputy sheriff’s car
Double nickel: The 55mph speed limit
Driver: Polite form of address when you do not know someone’s on-the-air nickname. (See “Handle”)
Drop/put the hammer down: Pressing the accelerator pedal to full speed
Feed the bear: Pay a traffic fine
Handle: Nickname a CB user uses in CB transmissions. Other CB users will refer to the user by this nickname. To say “What’s your handle?” is to ask another user for their CB nickname.
Negatory: No
Reefer: Refrigerated trailer
Smokey: Law officer, particularly state police or highway patrol

UPDATE:
A friend asked me to give some guidance to the CB radio terms in the C.W. McCall Convoy tune that I didn’t already identify, so here goes. I got most of these off Net sites; the plot of the song is that a bunch of truckers are going from California to New Jersey or maybe New York City.

C.W. McCall, by the way, was the fictitious name used by the writer and singer of that song, who was really Omaha ad agency art director, Bill Fries.

10-Roger: Cute form of 10-4
Cab-over:
Style of semi-truck tractor with a flat front due to the cab being over the engine
Catch you on the flip-flop:
“I’ll talk to you on my return trip (on the way back home).”
Chicken coop: Weigh station
Chi-town: Chicago, Illinois
Copy that: Message received
Got a copy?: “Do you hear me?”
Flagtown: Flagstaff, Arizona
Front door: The first vehicle in the line of a convoy
Headin’/huntin’ for bear: Coming up on a police blockade
Jimmy: a GMC truck
Keep the bugs off your glass and the bears off your . . . tail: The real phrase is “keep the bugs off your glass and the bears off your ass.” A typical CB sign-off that means to drive carefully and watch out for speed traps.
Longhaired friends of Jesus: Hippies
Microbus: Volkswagen Microbus or van. Very popular vehicle among the hippies during the 1960s and 1970s.* Another popular song that mentions the Volkswagen Microbus is Alice’s Restaurant Massacree by Arlo Guthrie.
On the side: A break in the conversation
Rigs:
Semi-truck brands, like Kenworth, Peterbilt or White, or types of semi, like cab-overs or reefers
Shakeytown: Los Angeles, California
Suicide jockey: Driver of a hazardous material truck
Swindle sheets: Truckers’ logs. Truckers have to keep logs of what they were hauling; these “swindle sheets” must be presented to Department Of Transportation officers on request.
Ten-nine (10-9): Repeat message
Tulsa-town: Tulsa, Oklahoma

*My VW Microbus (owned from 1969 to 1974) was a 1963 blue-and-white one with Budweiser-label fabric curtains and quality eight-track sound pushed through a Fender Showman speaker cabinet.
— Jim

FURTHER UPDATE:

This is turning into a mammoth post; there’s more interest than I anticipated!

Now some folks want to know why police, especially state police or troopers, are known as Smokeys or bears. Most of you already know this, but it’s the hat.

WWI Campaign Hat
When Smokey the Bear was chosen as the cartoon mascot of the U.S. Forest Service in 1947, he was drawn wearing a campaign hat. This cool-looking hat, known in the U.S. Army as the 1911 Hat, Service, M1911, is a broad-brimmed hat, usually made of felt, with a high crown, pinched symmetrically at the four corners (the “Montana crease”). The Montana crease was developed so that rain would not collect in the creases of the hat.

Smokey The Bear
These hats are still worn by Army drill instructors, forest rangers and such, but they’re most often seen on state police or highway patrol officers. In Canada, they’re worn by the Mounties.

Mountie
So that’s why, in trucker’s and CB lingo, state police are called Smokeys or bears!

Robots I Have Known

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My grand-daughter, Maddie, is fascinated by robots. Considering that she’s just over three years old, that’s a good indication, to me at least, of the prevalence of robots in our culture.

The word “robot” was created by a Czech painter in 1920 for his brother to use in a play to describe the machines who did drudge work. It’s a spinoff of the Slovak word for “serf.” Here’s a photo of three robots from that play, Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which debuted in 1920:

So from the beginning, robots had to have some resemblance to humans and be capable of movement. There are many robotic machines in use today but few are what we think of as robots. They’re just machines designed for repetitive tasks.

This cute stamped-metal toy from the 1950s is what a robot looked like to kids of my generation, though not all of them carried little red lanterns:

In the movies, one of the most iconic robots was Robby in The Forbidden Planet from 1956:

Robby was created by the prop makers at MGM and appeared in later TV shows and movies under other names. His best feature was the gears moving inside the transparent dome on his head.

The most famous film robot was probably R2D2 from Star Wars:

His buddy, C-3PO, was more of an android, I guess, but here he is:

Television had had many great robots. The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening, had a robot named Bender on a show called Futurama:

Here’s the 1948 comic book cover that Bender was based upon:

My favorite television robots were the wisecracking Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo from Mystery Science Theater 3000; here they are with their creator, Joel:

In comic books, unrestrained by having to be a physical object, robots were everywhere and of all shapes and sizes. A 1941 Action Comic shows Superman smashing a couple of crude robots:

On the early ’50s television show, The Adventures of Superman, there were a couple of robots. You can see they, too, were crude, reflecting the cheap budget of that truly wonderful show. Superman, as portrayed by George Reeves, was much kinder to this robot than his comic-book counterpart had been a few years earlier:

Side comment: In my opinion, George Reeves’ portrayal of Superman was flat-out the most successful by any actor. We now return to the robots.

In the later 1950s, DC editor Mort Weisinger created a Superman ethos that included a ton of great robots. Superman made an entire platoon of robots to cover for him in emergencies, and, as this Action Comics cover from 1961 shows, he had a few Clark Kent robots, too:

I love the expression on the face of that Clark Kent robot! He is really confounded by his predicament. And how do you like that expository dialog? Weisinger was famous for that and I find it one of the coolest things about the comics he edited; it was so over-the-top. One of his assistants once argued with Weisinger over the editor’s insistence on having a sign over a crook’s secret hideout that said, “Secret Hideout!”

These later Superman comic-book robots looked so much like humans that even close friends of the original subject couldn’t tell they were artificial. These high-end robots often had emotions, and, to my way of thinking, started crossing into what are more properly called androids. An android is a synthetic human being, and folks are busily creating them nowadays!

Here’s one called DER 01, made by the Intelligent Robotics Lab in Japan:

Spooky, huh?!?!?

How many robots and androids do you know?

I Can’t Wait!!!

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Christmas isn’t that far away, my friends, and this cover from a December, 1937 issue of The Modern Boy promises us great things are coming our way!

The Modern Boy was a weekly magazine that had exciting stories and pictures aimed at ten-year-olds in England. This cover showed a Dad and his son deciding on which toy they preferred.

All joking aside, this is a fairly accurate forecasting of us ordering stuff via the internet. The microphone sticking out of the set is a trifle alarming but remember that when this cover illustration was created, television in the home was at least ten or twelve years away. The artist based his TV set of the future on the large radios of the day and scored pretty near the mark. I like what appears to be a rotary telephone dial on the set; I guess that’s how you connect with the toy store.

Of course, two-way television communication was further off but it’s still a cool guess by folks 75 years ago at what our world would be like today.

Here’s another cover from an old publication; this one’s a dust-jacket cover from the 1912 book, Tom Swift and his Photo Telephone. Tom clearly anticipates iChat.

The form factor isn’t as accurate on this vision of the future, but it must have been a mind-blower to kids 100 years ago. Here’s some dialog where Tom and his dad discuss Tom’s amazing idea:

All right, Dad. Go ahead, laugh.'”

“‘Well, Tom, I’m not exactly laughing at you … it’s more at the idea than anything else. The idea of talking over a wire and, at the same time, having light waves, as well as electrical waves passing over the same conductors!'”

“‘All right, Dad. Go ahead and laugh. I don’t mind,’ said Tom, good-naturedly. “‘Folks laughed at Bell, when he said he could send a human voice over a copper string …”

One senses Tom’s frustration at his dad’s attitude, but we all know who came out looking foolish at the end of the book, don’t we?

There was another series of Tom Swift books when I was a kid; these were the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr, and he also had nifty ideas like space stations and solar batteries and a host of different metal alloys which were considered far-out at the time.

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