Captain Crunch
The original phonehacker

 This is a story from Australian MultiMedia in 1995, I’ve annotated it a bit, and added links (even when we published it, it was almost as if it was waiting for the web links. Now it feels a bit like explaining to the class, we knew all these names). Bill O’Donovan taped the interview and I transcribed it while the family slept, and added some context and corrections. Feb 2020 

It was a small plastic toy, about the size of your little finger. Mass produced, with slightly rough edges, it came in a number of unattractive colours. Yet when John Draper blew that free toy ‘bosun whistle’ in the Quaker Oats Cap’n Crunch cereal box, the 2600 cycle tone operated the disconnect code on the Bell phone network. The reverberations it made sent him to jail.

It also gave Draper his hacker alias, and both names have entered popular legend. The books, the magazines – the Mondo’s and the WIRED’s are all reaching back to those days in the 70’s, to the hackers and phone phreaks like Draper. A sense of history is important in a digital culture that only stretches twenty five years, back to the first kit computers and the silicon garage start-ups. We need our computer folk heroes, and if they come with an air of danger around them, it restores the feeling that we are on the digital frontier. This is in a world where the computer has become commonplace, so bog standard business ordinary that it shifts the edge of the digital wilderness far away from most of our desktops.

Draper comes with all that edge. He has an impeccable, documented pedigree as a hacker, complete with FBI busts, and friends who are still pushing the boundaries, such as radically protecting the right to privacy on the Net.

When he arrived in Sydney, he logged into town as ‘anonymous’. His black & white Powerbook attracted no more attention then the hundreds of other portables clutched by the business travellers beside him. Behind Draper’s constantly shifting, and wide eyed exploration of a new country (he explains that he’s seen so many documentaries on his US cable channels, and talks as if he’s on first name terms with Harry Butler), there is a particular irony. When he was finally arrested in California in 1972 for phone phreaking, he was on the phone listening to 2SM’s Sydney Top Ten hits line.

Twenty three years later, The Captain is back in Sydney and ready to dance to the music. I’m not sure if he just turned up in the Australian Multimedia office at Murdoch Magazines in North Sydney, or if Bill O’Donovan met him and invited him over. He told his tale in a cyber fireside chat to Bill O’Donovan and I edited in some commentary. We quickly arranged a photoshoot (and stupidly omitted the photographer credit) and the story ended up in the last print magazine we did, the June/July 1995 issue.

 



John Draper aka Captain Crunch

“I am here primarily to study the Australian Rave scene and to meet a lot of the Australian ravers I’ve been in communication with on the Internet. I discovered that the rave scene in Australia is very rich, I got a copy of the Rave Calendar from alt.rave and looked at all the parties and compared it with our list and I was really impressed. I contacted Mike Duigan, the maintainer of the list and joined the Australian Rave mailing list. I got personal first hand reports on all the raves. When they were talking about five thousand people showing up to a rave and about Hard Core music which we don’t get, I was just drooling back home thinking about all those great parties.

I write about the rave scene, publishing to the alt.rave Newsgroup. I’ve been raving since 1990, ever since the Toon Town days and Mr Floppy, when the raves started in the Bay area. Back then I wouldn’t dance because I had back injuries from my previous incarceration. (Draper doesn’t willingly talk about years he spent in jail, ‘The FBI needed a scapegoat and I was made the martyr, they tried to lock me up and throw away the key’. In (an interview) in the book Approaching Zero, Data Crime and the Computer Underworld * he describes a violent and physically abusive time.)

I met a personal trainer through my chiropractor, who got me into a training program for two years. He pushed me very hard in exercise and I became very strong, very fast. Within two years I was able to start dancing and it didn’t hurt. The first time I went dancing was on the fourth of July, 1992 called The Let Freedom Rave at the Livermore Racetrack (that’s USA, there’s a great list of 1992 Sydney raves and posters here). It was an outside rave, thousands of people were there, it was an awesome experience. In the hills of course, people were setting of fireworks, and they started a fire. The music stopped and they made an announcement saying that they had to evacuate the area. The ravers said ‘we’ll have no part of this’, and they went charging up the hill and put the fire out by stamping it down, tossing dirt on it, slapping out half an acre of fire with their jackets and coats, whatever they could find,. When they put the fire out they went back to the rave! That was the first time that I dropped acid. I did ecstasy and acid combined at the recommended dose, and I had such a great time. It was about half way into the peak period that the hillside caught on fire!

From then, in no uncertain terms I got hooked on raving, big time! I was going to a rave once a week and I then started having so much fun that I upped the rave times to two times a week. There were times when I would go raving for four solid days, Other then an occasional chill out, cooling off, laying on my back and stretching for ten or fifteen minutes, that’s eighty hours of constant non-stop dancing without sleep! I learnt how to do this by removing energy blockages that make you weak and tired.

I met the Zippies (WIRED, Wikipedia) last summer in Wyoming at a rave in a parking lot. I was getting it on big time, I was frying my brains out, I was dancing so hard. These guys came up to me and said ‘What the fuck are you man, I’ve never seen anybody as old as you are, dance for so long. I said ‘man I don’t know who the fuck you are man but your music is just so totally insane!’ So we talked and I invited them to come to the San Francisco scene. They took me up on it and I met this guy called Fraser Clarke. He was about the same age as me, 51 or 52 and he was the one who started the Megatripolis Club in London, the Zippie hangout. They’ve got an interesting formula there, with Internet hookups, this thing called the Alternative University, where they have people like Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary (WIRED, Wikipedia) give talks on LSD and other things that these people are interested in learning about.

I’m just not into drugs, I’ll smoke pot, and in the eighties when I was making a lot of money I did cocaine but I got sick and tired of it, I burned out and I stopped doing it. I’m definitely not into speed, I only do ecstasy and acid and then only in small amounts, enough to open up the blockages, to let the music flow through my body and to get into the trance state. That’s what I use drugs for, I don’t abuse them or encourage anybody to abuse them.

When I started raving I wouldn’t do drugs all the time, maybe once a month or so. They’re expensive, I wasn’t working and I could only afford them if I got in for free. I had promoters come up who saw me dancing and say ‘Man you’ve got such a great vibe, I want you to come to my party, you’re on the guest list. Then I started meeting girls! They’d come up on the dance floor and say ‘how old are you?’ and I’ve now got a whole lot of girlfriends I hang out with. I never used to have them before, so my whole life seems to have totally changed. Socially I’m a better person because of the rave scene.

The reason I started going to the Toon Town parties ( Medium, SF.Archive) was to help Craig Larson, who was the video producer for the Toon Towns. I’d just hang out, I was very self conscious about dancing. I wasn’t the kind of guy who went out much, I was kind of nerdy. I’d hang out in the chill zone and meet a lot of people, interesting techno, cyberpunks. I liked the music but when I tried it I’d get really sore for a couple of days. I felt like I was too old for it.

Then I joined the Cypherpunks, who were heavily into promoting PGP, (Pretty Good Privacy) which was written by Phil Zimmerman, and it was produced and developed by a group of programmers in Finland, mainly because the US has got restrictions on exporting cryptography technology. I began to go to the raves to distribute PGP disks to the rave culture.”

Draper brings his work as a programmer with him. He programs during the day, sends the code to his employer, a private company in Pennsylvania owned by a college friend and his pay is credited to his card account.

“At the moment I’m working on an software emulator for that little set top box you have on your TV set ,which will soon have a data port you’ll plug into your personal computer. It will give you fifty times more connection speed to on-line services, more speed then you can imagine, and let you send real time video. I’m also working for a recording studio in San Francisco doing a mixer, a graphic interface for a Mac.

When I’m programming I do not use drugs. I’m real serious when I’m behind that computer. There are two modes of operation when I write programs. One mode is a really creative mode, I take long hikes in the woods, get really fucked up on grass and get stoned. I get all these creative ideas and when the high comes down and after my short term memory comes back I start getting into the gnarly bits of code. In programming I have to keep track of 10,000 minor little details over a period of eight hours.

I’ve been in computing from the days of the Homebrew computer club. When Intel came out with their 8008 processor I was the first person to write a cross assembler so that people could write the operating systems. Steve Wozniak used my cross assembler to write the code for the first Apple.

There was a whole community in Silicon Valley that started the Homebrew Club. There was a lot of hardware experience and when Altair came out with their computer kit they were all building their own computers. I got hooked up with Woz a long time before the Apple came out. I was interviewed on a radio station called KPFA in Berkeley, it was an alternative public access station. Woz heard me and called me at the radio station I was working at doing some DJ work, called KKUP.

Three years after I met him, I can remember Woz working on the Apple 1 on Homestead Road in Sunnyville, and we’d be in his garage while he was hooking up boards. I was doing my own thing on 6800 system at the time when Woz got some printed circuit boards made and raised some venture capital and Apple was born. At the Homebrew meetings Steve would type in the code during the Random Access part of the meeting, and at the break he’d demonstrate it. People were blown away. There was another Steve, Steve Dompier, who had an Altair kit computer and put a transistor radio next to it and had it play Fool on the Hill with the interference modulating the RF on the radio. Things evolved, from the fifteen people in Gordon French’s garage in Menlo Park, the second week they had thirty people who didn’t fit in the garage. They moved to the nearby school and it was sixty people, by the fifth or sixth meeting there were two to three hundred members. It was a big show and tell, twice a month at first then once a month, and it was the beginning of personal computing, now it’s everywhere, there’s millions of personal computers on the Net.

I don’t believe the Internet is just for the haves. Even a bum on the street in San Francisico can walk into the Horseshoe Coffee Shop, the Icon coffee Shop and Bar or any number of coffee shops in the Haig in San Francisco, and sit at a terminal there. It’s called SFNET, the San Francisco Coffee shop net. They put in a quarter and they get four minutes access on the machine. If they have an Internet address, for 25c they can check their e-mail. It’s not free but it’s public accessible. It’s Internet for the rest of us. I’m in contact with a lot of homeless people who have nowhere to live and they’re bumming quarters from people on the street so that they can pump them into the terminals at the Horseshoe so that they can check their mail. That’s great.

My home on the Internet, is on the WELL. It’s also home to people like William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling who I’ve met several times, they all are on there. As a center for ideas it’s an important and exciting place. When I post stuff on the Internet it gets out to the world. We’re talking about millions of people reading your stuff. I publish my rave reports and ten minutes later I can check my mail and find thirty or forty mail messages commenting on the post. I write an article, post it on the Net, go and have dinner and when I come back I can read the responses coming back. That’s awesome power man!”

Approaching Zero, Data Crime and the Computer Underworld *Published by Faber and Faber, was distributed here by Penguin. RRP $12.95

Steven Levy’s book Hackers is still available as an ebook and as one of the alumni of WIRED he has a Medium blog of course.