Phone Freaks.

Posted on May 05, 2012 by Fraser Doherty

I've never owned a land-line phone.  I barely even use a mobile.  So, it is almost hard to imagine a world where phone boxes were omnipresent, the principle means of communication and a vital escape for some people.  Nowadays, the principle use of phones is not phoning people.. (I wouldn't be surprised if they start selling phone contracts that don't include calls).  Anyway..

In the 1950's, growing up in Richmond, Virginia, a kid called Joe Engressia Jr (pictured) developed a fascination with the telephone.  Being blind, it was an opportunity for him to 'see' the world beyond the confines of his home. 

The fascinating thing about his story is that one afternoon, playing with his parents' phone, he discovered that by whistling into the receiver at the right tone, he could control the machine.  He had perfect pitch.  Thus, he made free calls all over the world (back then, phones worked by sending a 'beep' back to the network to let it know you'd paid).  All his friends at college called him 'Whistler'; they all got free calls too..

His dream was to work for the telephone company.  Unfortunately, they wouldn't give him a job.  So he hatched a plan to get arrested for his phone freaking - when they saw him in the paper, they offered him a job.  He would listen to broken lines for them and let them know what was going wrong..

The sad twist to the story is that back when he was a kid, he was abused.  The phone offered him a chance to get away from it, at least momentarily.  Later in his life, he created an alter-ego by the name of 'Joybubbles', and hosted a phone-in show (kids would call a free voicemail number to listen to his show).  I guess it was the kind of show that he wish he'd been able to call into as a kid...

The story of phone freaking got me thinking about the history and future of the phone.  The famous inventor and fellow Scot, Alexander Graham Bell, was quoted as saying "You may think me cocky sir, but I can see the day when there will be a telephone in every town in America".

How, for my Grandparents' generation, it was an expensive luxury but for my parents it was cheap enough that they would spend hours talking to their friends.  Nowadays, more people in India have a phone than a toilet.  We're all more connected but I feel like, somewhere along the way, we've lost the ability to actually connect.. 


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