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Friday, 22 January 2016

The Phone Phreak

I dialled ‘93490’ and then my parents’ number and was astonished to hear it ring. You were supposed to dial ‘0405’ from Leeds to connect through to their exchange, but I had used ‘93490’. I would get more time for my money. It would be charged as a local call rather than long-distance. I pressed my 2p into the slot[1] knowing I had just got the better of the Post Office Telephone system. I was now a ‘phone phreak’.

Phone phreaking had its zenith in nineteen-sixties America and was the precursor of computer hacking. Among its devotees were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the future founders of Apple. As this was long before home computers and even longer before the internet, they satisfied their curiosity by fiddling with the telephone network.

When touch-tone phones were introduced in America in 1963, it was discovered almost by accident that whistles of specific frequencies could be used to control the electronic relays in telephone exchanges to get free calls, including long-distance and international calls. Phone phreaks were soon building tone and signal generators to make things easier. There were the so-called ‘blue boxes’ which gave free outgoing calls, ‘black boxes’ which received incoming calls without charging the caller, and ‘red boxes’ which tricked pay phones into registering the insertion of non-existent coins.[2]

Unfortunately, these devices did not work in the U.K. We still had telephones which communicated with the exchange through electronic clicks or pulses generated mechanically by rotary dials. Even when push-button phones began to appear in the nineteen-seventies, they were pulse phones rather than touch-tone. Our telephone exchanges were still based on electro-mechanical relays rather than today’s electronic switching systems.[3] In other words, the U.K. telephone system did not offer much scope for phone phreaking activities, which was a pity because from Leeds it cost what to me seemed a fortune to keep in touch with home.

What I had done in making my ‘93490’ call was ‘chaining’ (i.e. linking telephone exchanges together) rather than phreaking. To understand this we need to go into a little bit of detail. Skip to the next diagram to avoid it.

In 1972, telephone calls were charged in three different bands: (A) the local rate for up to around 35 miles, (B) 35-50 miles and (C) over 50 miles. Distance was measured between exchanges. Calls from Leeds to my parents’ exchange were in band B. This meant that after six in the evening, calling home from a phone box in Leeds cost 2p for 45 seconds, which was twice the local rate of 2p for 90 seconds. To put this in context, a five minute call home cost more than a lunchtime sandwich; money I could ill-afford to spare out of the wretched salary I received as an articled clerk. To be able to get twice the time for the same price was a welcome saving. Even better was the satisfaction of beating the system.

Chaining became possible when subscriber trunk dialling (STD) was introduced to allow callers to dial numbers themselves rather than waiting to be connected by a telephone operator. One of the first steps was to amalgamate area and sub-area exchanges so that, for example, if you were on the Goole-Thorne exchange, and you wanted to make a local call to a number in the Rawcliffe sub-area, you began your dialling with ‘83’ and were switched through automatically. The system then allowed the same technique for calls between adjacent main exchanges, also charged at the local rate. So to make a local call from the Pontefract exchange to a number on the Goole-Thorne exchange, you began with ‘90’ (you could have used the national STD code ‘0405’ instead, but this would have been charged at a higher rate). Furthermore, and this is the important bit, Pontefract callers could make local calls to Rawcliffe numbers by passing through the main Goole-Thorne exchange using the code ‘90-83’. Exchanges were wired to allow codes to be chained together. It was not explicit, you simply looked up the required dialling codes on a list, but this is what you were doing.

One side-effect of this was that you could pass straight through an exchange, in at one side and out at the other. So if you wanted to make a local call from Goole to Pontefract you would begin with ‘93’, and if you wanted to make a local call from Pontefract to Leeds you would use ‘92’, and if you put them together you could pass straight through Pontefract and call Leeds numbers from Goole with ‘93-92’ instead of the official ‘0532’. The difference was that you were charged at the local band A rate instead of the more expensive band B.

In the opposite direction, Pontefract from Leeds was ‘934’, and the Goole-Thorne exchange from Pontefract was ‘90’, so if you dialled a Goole-Thorne number from Leeds using ‘934-90’ instead of the official ‘0405’ it was charged as local call. This is what I did when I called home from the call box in Leeds.

It looked like this:

It would therefore have been possible to call Rawcliffe numbers and Scunthorpe numbers at local rates from Leeds by passing through the Pontefract and Goole exchanges using the codes ’934-90-83’ and ’934-90-95’ respectively.

In theory there was no limit to the number of links in the chain. For example, you could make a ‘local’ call from Bradford to Hull via the Leeds, Pontefract, Selby and Howden exchanges using ‘92-934-91-96-93’, and from Scunthorpe to Ripon via the Goole, Pontefract, Leeds and Harrogate exchanges using  ‘95-93-92-92-91’. The main problem was that the volume became fainter as the chain grew longer.

As I travelled around for work, I spent several months collecting dialling codes from different areas, sometimes even copying them down in call boxes. I began to construct a network map which recently turned up among old papers in my capacious loft:

It would have been great to have been able to get all the way through to friends at university in London, but as the map shows, I didn’t get any nearer than Retford, Worksop and Chesterfield. In part, collecting and organising large numbers of telephone codes was an enormous and tedious task, and even I began to lose interest. A glance at my notes for the Leeds and Pontefract exchanges, below, indicates how time-consuming it was. In addition, codes were changing all the time. The network was gradually being improved and eventually all dialling codes were changed to the present-day 0--- and 0-- format, which prevented chaining. Within two or three years my cheap call codes no longer worked.

It was fascinating at the time. One insight was how the STD dialling codes were based on earlier alphabetical codes, a legacy we still have today. Leeds was once ‘LE2’, and other locations beginning with ‘LE’ were Ledbury ‘LE1’ and Leicester ‘LE3’. So the STD code for Leeds became ‘0’ (for operator) ‘LE2’ (for Leeds), which translates on the letter-number dial into ‘0532’. Similarly, Ledbury became ‘0531’ and Leicester ‘0533’. Hull’s ‘HU2’ became ‘0482’, Huddersfield’s ‘HU4’ became ‘0484’ and Goole-Thorne’s ‘GO5’ became ‘0405’. There were lots of exceptions and inconsistencies, and many codes have since changed, but in many cases the legacy still persists. Goole, for example, is now ‘01405’, and Hull is ‘01482’.

There was one last occasion I remember cheating the system. I moved into new accommodation to be told, almost immediately, that the building was to be renovated and all tenants had to be out by the end of the month. Off the shared kitchen was a telephone with a dial lock to prevent unauthorised use. Knowing you could bypass this by ‘switch-hooking’, i.e. rapidly pressing and releasing the cradle to simulate the pulses generated by the rotary dial,[4] I tapped out a call to my friend Hugo in Belgium. Clicking at the required six or seven times per second is not easy, but I managed the ‘01032’ international code followed by Hugo’s number at the first attempt, and we spoke for a good ten minutes. I bet all hell was let loose when the bill came listing an expensive international call, but I still have no regrets about it. The rent was excessive and it was a pain having to find somewhere else to live so soon after moving in, at such short notice.


[1] By 1972 most public telephone boxes had been converted to the Pay-On-Answer type which accepted coins only when a call was answered. These replaced the older Button ‘A’ and ‘B’ boxes which required payment in advance. In the older boxes you fed coins into a slot, dialled the required number, and when someone answered you pressed Button A in order to be heard and your coin dropped irretrievably further into the machine. If there was no answer you pressed Button B to get your money back. When your time was about to run out you heard a series of urgent ‘pips’ and if you failed to feed in further coins you were summarily cut off. To circumvent this you could feed in lots of coins at the start and Button B would return any unused coins at the end. As children, we rarely passed a phone box without going in to press Button B in case someone had forgotten to retrieve their unused coins.

[2] For example, the black box worked by altering the electrical potential on the line so as to trick the telephone exchange into registering that the phone was still ringing when in fact you had answered it and were happily chatting away. Details of this and other techniques can be found at, which is a repository of old phreaking documents written by people far more knowledgeable than me. One of the files gives a history of British phreaking. Don’t go there if you find my blog post too technical. However, the site home page provides links to an Aladdin’s cave of all kinds of old files. 

[3] Even today, telephone networks can still accept pulse telephones. A year or so ago our phone was deadened by a power cut and we had no working mobile (cell) phone in the house. We do however keep an old push-button pulse phone with the emergency candles and camping stove. Because pulse telephones are powered by the small electric current that comes down the telephone wires, I was able to use it to contact the supply company to find out how long the power cut was likely to last. This is also why people who misused the telephone system in the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies, such as anyone caught chaining, were charged with the heinous crime of wasting Post Office electricity.

[4] It is said that by switch-hooking the old Button A/B telephone boxes you could make calls without paying for them at all. I never tried this and don’t know whether it is actually true. One claim that it is appears at the end of at where there are also some great photographs of telephone boxes and Button A/B telephones.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Jumped-Down Catholics

“A canna mind fit tae dee,” (I can’t remember what to do) Iona had said, puzzling over some detail of the voluntary work we were doing. Attracted by her soft Banffshire accent, I dared suggest we might go see a film together, and we became friends.

Iona was studying theology with a view to becoming a Church of Scotland Minister. I tried to impress her by casually mentioning I had been brought up in the Church of England but was instantly written off as “just a jumped-down Catholic”. I had to creep off to the library to find out what she meant (there being no Google in those days). It was a reference to Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII’s secession of the English Church from Rome in 1534. Jumped-down Catholic indeed!

If that seems dismissive, you should have heard what she had to say about the Roman Catholic Church and its attitude towards women’s ordination.

“Fit wye dae they insist ye hiv tae hae a penis tae be a Minister, and then nae allow ye tae use it? Except for peeing that is, and they wadnae een allow ye that if there wasna nae alternative.” She said this with a kind of forceful but gentle determination that told you she was going to be a brilliant Church of Scotland Minister.

One Sunday, Iona came with me on a visit home. She and my dad talked non-stop about Scottish history, Aberdeen, and all kinds of other things. My dad was a regular churchgoer, and as Iona had not been to Church that day she decided to go along with him to the evening service. I went too so as not to miss anything. So did my dad’s sister Dorothy and her husband Fred. They wondered why I was going to Church with the young lady I had brought home. They did not want to miss anything either.

It was a long time since I had been to a regular service at the Parish Church. In those days it was always well-attended. More recently, I had seen decent congregations at weddings, Christenings and funerals. But this evening when we arrived, we were the only five there. The vast building looked gloomy and uncared for.

Dorothy and Fred took one pew, and my dad, Iona and myself sat immediately behind. We waited for things to begin. I won’t say “waited patiently” because Fred never waited patiently for anything. He rarely sat still. He did everything at a frantic pace. Even so, I was still surprised when he jumped up, disappeared through a side door and re-emerged with a stepladder. Ignoring Dorothy’s exasperated protests, he rushed into the most sacred, chancel part of the church, set up the stepladder, moved the golden cross and candlestick holders out of the way, and climbed up and stood on the altar. Dorothy sighed and turned to Iona with her usual resigned apology: “My husband’s hyperactive.”

Fred then lifted his arms and reached up to the heavens. I thought for a moment he must have been overcome by revelations of everlasting splendour until he began to change the light bulbs hanging from above. Only one bulb was out but he explained it was good maintenance practice to replace them all at the same time. Not even God Himself would dare disagree with a qualified electrical engineer and safety consultant.

I have to admit to being somewhat relieved to realise that that the only brilliance shining down from upon high that bothered him was the number of lumens illuminating the proceedings. I had wondered for a moment whether he might have been engaged in some newly-instigated aspect of worship, in which we now all went up in turn to stand on the altar to declare ourselves, only metaphorically I hoped, sacrificial lambs. I felt sure that when it was my turn I would be bound to get it all wrong and make a fool of myself in front of everyone. It is not easy to let go of your inhibitions in public.

Fred had just put the stepladder away when two further members of the congregation joined us. The first, a serious, shiny-faced man with a brylcreemed comb-over, checked jacket and non-matching striped tie, bid a curt “Good Evening”, went into the pew behind us, knelt down, closed his eyes tightly and began to pray. Then came an old lady dressed up in black hat, gloves and overcoat, with silver brooch and hat pin. She shuffled slowly up the aisle on a walking stick. Dorothy addressed her as Mrs. Fisher and pointed to the seat beside her. She sat down and observed loudly what a wonderfully large turn out we had this evening. Evidently some weeks it was just my dad and Mrs. Fisher.

The Minister entered through the transept from the front and began to light the candles. Fred put his hand to the side of his mouth and turned to Iona conspiratorially.

“This bloke’s a complete idiot,” he whispered none too quietly, disturbing the shiny-faced man from his communion with God.

The Minister, the Reverend Mundy, was a Church Army Evangelist who helped in the Parish by taking the Sunday evening service once a month. He was short, bald and round, but held himself stiffly upright in his surplice, like a little white budgerigar, in an effort to look more imposing than he actually did. Perhaps he imagined he was leading the grand and moving ceremony of Choral Evensong, but this was not Choral Evensong, it was Evening Prayer. There was no choir. In fact, there was no organist either: only the Minister and the seven members of the Congregation. We had to sing the hymns and psalms unaccompanied.

It was a total shambles. Our feeble voices evaporated self-consciously into the roof beams. As we mumbled our way through ‘The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended’ all in different keys, Mrs. Fisher rustled ineffectually through her hymn book trying to find the right page. She might have managed better if she had taken off her gloves. By the time Dorothy had helped her find the page, the hymn Thou gavest, Lord, had ended, and the rustling began all over again as Mrs. Fisher tried to find the Order of Service in her prayer book. 

The next hymn was even worse. It was one of those excessively cheerful, suspiciously Methodist hymns, known only to the Reverend and the shiny-faced man. They sang to completely different tunes, each trying to drown out the other as if to ensure God heard them first. Shiny-face was easily the loudest, but in any formal competition I would have called for him to be disqualified on the ground that his checked jacket and striped tie gave unfair advantage.

The psalms, prayers, responses, confession, absolution, creed, canticles and other spoken words of Evening Prayer are set out in the Book of Common Prayer. They go on forever, and the longer they go on, the more you could be forgiven for allowing your mind to wander. Fred’s mind clearly started to wander early on, but was snapped back into focus by the short prayer: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord;” prompting him to examine the ceiling for further areas of darkness in need of lightening. He even stood up to survey the rear of the church, but the Reverend Mundy droned on without noticing.

I should have anticipated what happened next and prevented it. I failed to spot that my dad had been dying to tell Mundy that Iona was going to be a Church of Scotland Minister. The opportunity came as Mundy waited to shake our hands after the service. It was never going to work out well.

Mundy brightened up like one of Fred’s new bulbs and began to emit a long, one-sided homily about recognising one’s calling, changes to the liturgy and who should be the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile, Fred re-appeared with a heavy wooden extendable ladder and began changing light bulbs high up the walls. Despite being a safety consultant, he did not look very safe to me. He rushed from bulb to bulb swinging the ends of his ladder so lethally he nearly knocked over the still-burning candles and set fire to the altar cloth.

And then, you knew it was coming, the topic Mundy had been wanting to talk about all along. Ingenuousness finally got the better of discretion and he homed in on the incendiary subject of women’s ordination. Iona listened solemnly as he declared it would be a mistake to admit women into the clergy, not, he forcibly emphasised, that he was personally against the idea, but because there would be a schism of two thousand Ministers leaving the Church, and he would not want that to happen. In any case, he continued, he thought a lot of women who wanted to be priests had been born with the wrong anatomy. He thought women should look like women.

Just when it seemed inevitable that Mundy would be obliterated by the “so ye hiv tae hae a penis” put down, the end of Uncle Fred’s ladder whizzed past, missing the side of his head by inches. It was like a portent of Divine Providence. Had he not just told us in one of the readings “... every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire”?

“He’s jist a bletherin’ fool,” Iona said afterwards echoing Uncle Fred. “He disna ken fit he’s spikkin’ aboot.”

*                   *                  *

In an odd sort of way, Iona’s speech reminded me of my grandparents’ Yorkshire dialect. You wondered about their common Anglo-Saxon roots. Even some of the words were the same. They talked about “bairns” and “be-asts” and t’ “watter”, and were amused when my brother had birthday cards “fra lasses”. They were words you wanted to use yourself because they felt like they meant; not clinical, educated English words that “slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.” (Lewis Grassic Gibbon: Sunset Song, 1932). For more about Buchan Doric as it is usually called, its origins and how it sounds, and to attempt to spik lik a teuchtar, you can do little better than to look on Google books at (or buy): Doric: The Dialect of North-East Scotland by J. Derrick McClure (2002). I especially like Chapter 4: Examples of Recorded Speech.