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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Save Captain Crunch

The man who taught a generation what it meant to be a hacker needs help.

  • December 8, 2010

In Steven Levy’s classic, sprawling, rapturous ode to the birth of the hacker movement, the book Hackers, Captain Crunch is a bit player–a hacker who took his name from the toy whistle available free in boxes of Captain Crunch. (When blown into a pay phone, this whistle could be used to make free long distance calls.)

John “Captain Crunch” Draper

In Hackers, Captain Crunch shows up primarily as an adjunct to the nascent Apple computer company, where he was briefly employed to create a circuit board that, when connected to a phone, could enable an Apple II to reproduce his feats of phone hacking. Fearing legal entanglements, the board was never released, and Captain Crunch didn’t last long at the fledgling company, but the “blue box” on which the board was based became the workhorse of the phone hacker “phreaking” community.

In the real world, it’s hard to find a hacker more iconic than Captain Crunch, whose exploits revolved around hacking what was in effect then the world’s largest computer–the many thousands of switches comprising the international telephone system, whose coded language wasn’t the ones and zeroes of binary computer logic but instead the pure tones used internally to connect long distance calls. Phone phreaking was a staple of hacking culture the world over, popularized by magazines like 2600 and, according to a 1995 interview with an embittered Captain Crunch himself, aka John Draper, through a network of criminals whom he trained in the dark arts of free phone calls while doing a four month stint in Federal prison in the 1976.

John Draper today

After years of increasing marginalization from the Silicon Valley technology industry he helped to inspire, decades marked by sporadic employment and sporadic access to healthcare, he is now afflicted with a variety of health problems and, at times, afraid he wouldn’t be able to scrape together enough freelance Web development work to pay his bills. And now John Draper needs surgery for a pinched nerve.

Without it, say the creators of the website Saving Captain Crunch, Draper, who designed the first word processor for the Apple II, Easy Writer, won’t even be able to use his hands or type on a computer.

Draper, like many of his contemporaries on the hacker fringe documented in Levy’s Hackers, has long been famous for being interested in the art of hacking to the exclusion of all else. In their youth, it was an eccentricity, but as old men, the habit of single-minded devotion to the machine has taken its toll. Draper’s friends say the Captain will need thousands of dollars in care–as of this writing, they have managed to raise only $2,000 of their $10,000 goal.

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