By Douglas Martin
August 20, 2007
Joybubbles (the legal name of the former Joe Engressia since 1991), a
blind genius with perfect pitch who accidentally found he could make
free phone calls by whistling tones and went on to play a pivotal role
in the 1970s subculture of phone phreaks, died on Aug. 8 in Minneapolis.
He was 58, though he had chosen in 1988 to remain 5 forever, and had the
toys and teddy bears to prove it. The cause of death has not been
determined, said Steven Gibb, a friend and the executor of the
Joybubbles, who was blind at birth, was a famous part of what began as a
scattered, socially awkward group of precocious teens and post-teens
fascinated with exploring the phone system. It could then be seen as the
worlds biggest, most complex, most interesting computer, and foiling the
phone system passed for high-tech high jinks in the 70s.
It was the only game in town if you wanted to play with a computer, said
Phil Lapsley, who is writing a book on the phone phreaks. Later, other
blind whistlers appeared, but in 1957, Joybubbles may have been the
first person to whistle his way into the heart of Ma Bell.
Phreaks were precursors of todays computer hackers, and, like some of
them, Joybubbles ran afoul of the law. Not a few phreaks were computer
pioneers, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple.
Joybubbles felt that being abused at a school for the blind and being
pushed by his mother to live up to his 172 I.Q. had robbed him of
childhood. So he amassed piles of toys, Jack and Jill magazines and
imaginary friends, and he took a name he said made people smile.
But he never lost his ardor for phones, and old phone phreaks and
younger would-have-beens kept calling. Joybubbles loved the phone
company, reported problems he had illegally discovered and even said he
had planned his own arrest on fraud charges to get a phone job. And so
he did, twice.
Well before the mid-1970s, when digitalization ended the tone-based
system, Joybubbles had stopped stealing calls. But he was already a
legend: he had phoned around the world, talking into one phone and
listening to himself on another.
In an article in Esquire in 1971, the writer Ron Rosenbaum called
Joybubbles the catalyst uniting disparate phreaks. Particularly after
news accounts of his suspension from college in 1968 and conviction in
1971 for phone violations, he became a nerve center of the movement.
Every night he sits like a sightless spider in his little apartment
receiving messages from every tendril of its web, Mr. Rosenbaum wrote.
Josef Carl Engressia Jr. was born May 25, 1949, and moved often because
his father was a school-picture photographer. At 4 or 5, he learned to
dial by using the hookswitch like a telegraph key. Four years later, he
discovered that he could disconnect a call by whistling. He found this
out when he imitated a sound in the background on a long-distance call
and the line cut off. It turned out that his whistle precisely
replicated a crucial phone company signal, a 2,600-cycles-per-second
Joybubbles's parents had no phone for five years because of their sons
obsession. Later, his mother encouraged it by reading him technical
books. His high school yearbook photo showed him in a phone booth.
By the time he was a student at the University of South Florida,
Joybubbles was dialing toll-free or nonworking numbers to reach a
distant switching point. Unbeknownst to telephone operators, he could
use sounds to dial another number, free. He could then jump anywhere in
the phone system. He was disconnected from college after being caught
making calls for friends at $1 a call. In 1971, he moved to Memphis,
where he was convicted of phone fraud. In Millington, Tenn., he was
hired to clean phones, a job he hated. In 1975, he moved to Denver to
ferret out problems in Mountain Bells network.
He tired of that and moved to Minneapolis on June 12, 1982, partly
because that dates numerical representation of 6-12 is the same as the
citys area code. He advertised for people yearning to discuss things
telephonic and weaved a web of phone lines to accommodate them. He lived
on Social Security disability payments and part-time jobs like letting
university agriculture researchers use his superb sense of smell to
investigate how to control the odor of hog excrement.
Joybubbles is survived by his mother, Esther Engressia, and his sister,
Toni Engressia, both of Homestead, Fla.
His second life as a youngster included becoming a minister in his own
Church of Eternal Childhood and collecting tapes of every Mr. Rogers
episode. When asked why Mr. Rogers mattered, he said: When youre playing
and youre just you, powerful things happen.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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