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TUCoPS :: Phreaking General Information :: joyobit.txt

Obituary: Joe "The Whistler" Engressia, later known as "Joybubbles", pioneering phone phreak




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 estate.

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 
tone.

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.


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