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the nine long hours of frantic effort that it took to
service, some seventy million telephone calls went
Losses of service, known as "outages" in the telco
trade, are a known and accepted hazard of the telephone
business. Hurricanes hit, and phone cables get snapped
by the thousands. Earthquakes wrench through buried
fiber-optic lines. Switching stations catch fire and burn
the ground. These things do happen. There are
contingency plans for them, and decades of experience in
dealing with them. But the Crash of January 15 was
unprecedented. It was unbelievably huge, and it occurred
for no apparent physical reason.
The crash started on a Monday afternoon in a single
switching-station in Manhattan. But, unlike any merely
physical damage, it spread and spread. Station after
station across America collapsed in a chain reaction, until
fully half of AT&T's network had gone haywire and the
remaining half was hard-put to handle the overflow.
Within nine hours, AT&T software engineers more or
less understood what had caused the crash. ъeplicating
the problem exactly, poring over software line by line,
took them a couple of weeks. But because it was hard to
understand technically, the full truth of the matter and its
implications were not widely and thoroughly aired and
explained. The root cause of the crash remained obscure,
surrounded by rumor and fear.
The crash was a grave corporate embarrassment.
The "culprit" was a bug in AT&T's own software -- not the
sort of admission the telecommunications giant wanted to
make, especially in the face of increasing competition.
Still, the truth *was* told, in the baffling technical
necessary to explain it.
Somehow the explanation failed to persuade
American law enforcement officials and even telephone
corporate security personnel. These people were not
technical experts or software wizards, and they had their
own suspicions about the cause of this disaster.
The police and telco security had important sources
of information denied to mere software engineers. They
had informants in the computer underground and years
of experience in dealing with high-tech rascality that
seemed to grow ever more sophisticated. For years they
had been expecting a direct and savage attack against the
American national telephone system. And with the Crash
of January 15 -- the first month of a new, high-tech decade
-- their predictions, fears, and suspicions seemed at last
have entered the real world. A world where the telephone
system had not merely crashed, but, quite likely, *been*
crashed -- by "hackers."
The crash created a large dark cloud of suspicion
that would color certain people's assumptions and actions
for months. The fact that it took place in the realm of
software was suspicious on its face. The fact that it
occurred on Martin Luther King Day, still the most
politically touchy of American holidays, made it more
The Crash of January 15 gave the Hacker
Crackdown its sense of edge and its sweaty urgency. It
made people, powerful people in positions of public
authority, willing to believe the worst. And, most fatally,
helped to give investigators a willingness to take extreme
measures and the determination to preserve almost total
An obscure software fault in an aging switching
system in New York was to lead to a chain reaction of legal
and constitutional trouble all across the country.
Like the crash in the telephone system, this chain
reaction was ready and waiting to happen. During the
1980s, the American legal system was extensively patched
to deal with the novel issues of computer crime. There
was, for instance, the Electronic Communications Privacy
Act of 1986 (eloquently described as "a stinking mess" by a
prominent law enforcement official). And there was the
draconian Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, passed
unanimously by the United States Senate, which later
would reveal a large number of flaws. Extensive, well-
meant efforts had been made to keep the legal system up
to date. But in the day-to-day grind of the real world,
the most elegant software tends to crumble and suddenly
reveal its hidden bugs.
Like the advancing telephone system, the American
legal system was certainly not ruined by its temporary
crash; but for those caught under the weight of the
collapsing system, life became a series of blackouts and
In order to understand why these weird events
occurred, both in the world of technology and in the world
of law, it's not enough to understand the merely technical
problems. We will get to those; but first and foremost, we
must try to understand the telephone, and the business of
telephones, and the community of human beings that
telephones have created.
Technologies have life cycles, like cities do, like
institutions do, like laws and governments do.
The first stage of any technology is the Question
Mark, often known as the "Golden Vaporware" stage. At
this early point, the technology is only a phantom, a mere
gleam in the inventor's eye. One such inventor was a
speech teacher and electrical tinkerer named Alexander
Bell's early inventions, while ingenious, failed to
move the world. In 1863, the teenage Bell and his brother
Melville made an artificial talking mechanism out of
wood, rubber, gutta-percha, and tin. This weird device had
a rubber-covered "tongue" made of movable wooden
segments, with vibrating rubber "vocal cords," and rubber
"lips" and "cheeks." While Melville puffed a bellows into a
tin tube, imitating the lungs, young Alec Bell would
manipulate the "lips," "teeth," and "tongue," causing the
thing to emit high-pitched falsetto gibberish.
Another would-be technical breakthrough was the
Bell "phonautograph" of 1874, actually made out of a
human cadaver's ear. Clamped into place on a tripod, this
grisly gadget drew sound-wave images on smoked glass
through a thin straw glued to its vibrating earbones.
By 1875, Bell had learned to produce audible sounds -
- ugly shrieks and squawks -- by using magnets,
diaphragms, and electrical current.
Most "Golden Vaporware" technologies go nowhere.
But the second stage of technology is the ъising Star,
or, the "Goofy Prototype," stage. The telephone, Bell's
most ambitious gadget yet, reached this stage on March
10, 1876. On that great day, Alexander Graham Bell
became the first person to transmit intelligible human
speech electrically. As it happened, young Professor
industriously tinkering in his Boston lab, had spattered
his trousers with acid. His assistant, Mr. Watson, heard
his cry for help -- over Bell's experimental audio-
telegraph. This was an event without precedent.
Technologies in their "Goofy Prototype" stage rarely
work very well. They're experimental, and therefore half-
baked and rather frazzled. The prototype may be
attractive and novel, and it does look as if it ought to be
good for something-or-other. But nobody, including the
inventor, is quite sure what. Inventors, and speculators,
and pundits may have very firm ideas about its potential
use, but those ideas are often very wrong.
The natural habitat of the Goofy Prototype is in
shows and in the popular press. Infant technologies need
publicity and investment money like a tottering calf need
milk. This was very true of Bell's machine. To raise
research and development money, Bell toured with his
device as a stage attraction.
Contemporary press reports of the stage debut of
the telephone showed pleased astonishment mixed with
considerable dread. Bell's stage telephone was a large
wooden box with a crude speaker-nozzle, the whole
contraption about the size and shape of an overgrown
Brownie camera. Its buzzing steel soundplate, pumped
up by powerful electromagnets, was loud enough to fill an
auditorium. Bell's assistant Mr. Watson, who could
manage on the keyboards fairly well, kicked in by playing
the organ from distant rooms, and, later, distant cities.
This feat was considered marvellous, but very eerie
Bell's original notion for the telephone, an idea
promoted for a couple of years, was that it would become
a mass medium. We might recognize Bell's idea today as
something close to modern "cable radio." Telephones at
a central source would transmit music, Sunday sermons,
and important public speeches to a paying network of
At the time, most people thought this notion made
good sense. In fact, Bell's idea was workable. In
Hungary, this philosophy of the telephone was
successfully put into everyday practice. In Budapest, for
decades, from 1893 until after World War I, there was a
government-run information service called "Telefon
Hirmondo=." Hirmondo= was a centralized source of news
and entertainment and culture, including stock reports,
plays, concerts, and novels read aloud. At certain hours of
the day, the phone would ring, you would plug in a
loudspeaker for the use of the family, and Telefon
Hirmondo= would be on the air -- or rather, on the phone.
Hirmondo= is dead tech today, but Hirmondo= might
be considered a spiritual ancestor of the modern
telephone-accessed computer data services, such as
CompuServe, GEnie or Prodigy. The principle behind
Hirmondo= is also not too far from computer "bulletin-
board systems" or BBS's, which arrived in the late 1970s,
spread rapidly across America, and will figure largely in
We are used to using telephones for individual
person-to-person speech, because we are used to the Bell
system. But this was just one possibility among many.
Communication networks are very flexible and protean,
especially when their hardware becomes sufficiently
advanced. They can be put to all kinds of uses. And they
have been -- and they will be.
Bell's telephone was bound for glory, but this was a
combination of political decisions, canny infighting in
court, inspired industrial leadership, receptive local
conditions and outright good luck. Much the same is true
of communications systems today.
As Bell and his backers struggled to install their
newfangled system in the real world of nineteenth-century
New England, they had to fight against skepticism and
industrial rivalry. There was already a strong electrical
communications network present in America: the
telegraph. The head of the Western Union telegraph
system dismissed Bell's prototype as "an electrical toy"
and refused to buy the rights to Bell's patent. The
telephone, it seemed, might be all right as a parlor
entertainment -- but not for serious business.
Telegrams, unlike mere telephones, left a permanent
physical record of their messages. Telegrams, unlike
telephones, could be answered whenever the recipient
had time and convenience. And the telegram had a much
longer distance-range than Bell's early telephone. These
factors made telegraphy seem a much more sound and
businesslike technology -- at least to some.
The telegraph system was huge, and well-entrenched.
In 1876, the United States had 214,000 miles of telegraph
wire, and 8500 telegraph offices. There were specialized
telegraphs for businesses and stock traders, government,
police and fire departments. And Bell's "toy" was best
known as a stage-magic musical device.
The third stage of technology is known as the "Cash
Cow" stage. In the "cash cow" stage, a technology finds
place in the world, and matures, and becomes settled and
productive. After a year or so, Alexander Graham Bell
and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie music
piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the
real selling-point of his invention. Instead, the telephone
was about speech -- individual, personal speech, the
human voice, human conversation and human
interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from
any centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal,
When you picked up a telephone, you were not
absorbing the cold output of a machine -- you were
speaking to another human being. Once people realized
this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an eerie,
unnatural device, swiftly vanished. A "telephone call" was
not a "call" from a "telephone" itself, but a call from
another human being, someone you would generally know
and recognize. The real point was not what the machine
could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a
person and citizen, could do *through* the machine. This
decision on the part of the young Bell Company was
The first telephone networks went up around Boston -
- mostly among the technically curious and the well-to-do
(much the same segment of the American populace that,
a hundred years later, would be buying personal
computers). Entrenched backers of the telegraph
continued to scoff.
But in January 1878, a disaster made the telephone
famous. A train crashed in Tarriffville, Connecticut.
Forward-looking doctors in the nearby city of Hartford had
had Bell's "speaking telephone" installed. An alert local
druggist was able to telephone an entire community of
local doctors, who rushed to the site to give aid. The
disaster, as disasters do, aroused intense press coverage.
The phone had proven its usefulness in the real world.
After Tarriffville, the telephone network spread like
crabgrass. By 1890 it was all over New England. By '93,
to Chicago. By '97, into Minnesota, Nebraska and Texas.
By 1904 it was all over the continent.
The telephone had become a mature technology.
Professor Bell (now generally known as "Dr. Bell" despite
his lack of a formal degree) became quite wealthy. He
lost interest in the tedious day-to-day business muddle of
the booming telephone network, and gratefully returned
his attention to creatively hacking-around in his various
laboratories, which were now much larger, better-
ventilated, and gratifyingly better-equipped. Bell was
never to have another great inventive success, though his
speculations and prototypes anticipated fiber-optic
transmission, manned flight, sonar, hydrofoil ships,
tetrahedral construction, and Montessori education. The
"decibel," the standard scientific measure of sound
intensity, was named after Bell.
Not all Bell's vaporware notions were inspired. He
was fascinated by human eugenics. He also spent many
years developing a weird personal system of astrophysics
in which gravity did not exist.
Bell was a definite eccentric. He was something of a
hypochondriac, and throughout his life he habitually
stayed up until four A.M., refusing to rise before noon.
But Bell had accomplished a great feat; he was an idol of
millions and his influence, wealth, and great personal
charm, combined with his eccentricity, made him
something of a loose cannon on deck. Bell maintained a
thriving scientific salon in his winter mansion in
Washington, D.C., which gave him considerable
backstage influence in governmental and scientific
circles. He was a major financial backer of the the
magazines *Science* and *National Geographic,* both
still flourishing today as important organs of the American
Bell's companion Thomas Watson, similarly wealthy
and similarly odd, became the ardent political disciple of a
19th-century science-fiction writer and would-be social
reformer, Edward Bellamy. Watson also trod the boards
briefly as a Shakespearian actor.
There would never be another Alexander Graham
Bell, but in years to come there would be surprising
numbers of people like him. Bell was a prototype of the
high-tech entrepreneur. High-tech entrepreneurs will
play a very prominent role in this book: not merely as
technicians and businessmen, but as pioneers of the
technical frontier, who can carry the power and prestige
they derive from high-technology into the political and
Like later entrepreneurs, Bell was fierce in defense of
his own technological territory. As the telephone began to
flourish, Bell was soon involved in violent lawsuits in the
defense of his patents. Bell's Boston lawyers were
excellent, however, and Bell himself, as an elecution
teacher and gifted public speaker, was a devastatingly
effective legal witness. In the eighteen years of Bell's
patents, the Bell company was involved in six hundred
separate lawsuits. The legal records printed filled 149
volumes. The Bell Company won every single suit.
After Bell's exclusive patents expired, rival telephone
companies sprang up all over America. Bell's company,
American Bell Telephone, was soon in deep trouble. In
1907, American Bell Telephone fell into the hands of the
rather sinister J.P. Morgan financial cartel, robber-baron
speculators who dominated Wall Street.
At this point, history might have taken a different
turn. American might well have been served forever by a
patchwork of locally owned telephone companies. Many
state politicians and local businessmen considered this an
But the new Bell holding company, American
Telephone and Telegraph or AT&T, put in a new man at
the helm, a visionary industrialist named Theodore Vail.
Vail, a former Post Office manager, understood large
organizations and had an innate feeling for the nature of
large-scale communications. Vail quickly saw to it that
AT&T seized the technological edge once again. The
Pupin and Campbell "loading coil," and the deForest
"audion," are both extinct technology today, but in 1913
they gave Vail's company the best *long-distance* lines
ever built. By controlling long-distance -- the links
between, and over, and above the smaller local phone
companies -- AT&T swiftly gained the whip-hand over
them, and was soon devouring them right and left.
Vail plowed the profits back into research and
development, starting the Bell tradition of huge-scale and
brilliant industrial research.
Technically and financially, AT&T gradually
steamrollered the opposition. Independent telephone
companies never became entirely extinct, and hundreds
of them flourish today. But Vail's AT&T became the
supreme communications company. At one point, Vail's
AT&T bought Western Union itself, the very company
that had derided Bell's telephone as a "toy." Vail
thoroughly reformed Western Union's hidebound
business along his modern principles; but when the
federal government grew anxious at this centralization of
power, Vail politely gave Western Union back.
This centralizing process was not unique. Very
similar events had happened in American steel, oil, and
railroads. But AT&T, unlike the other companies, was to
remain supreme. The monopoly robber-barons of those
other industries were humbled and shattered by
Vail, the former Post Office official, was quite
to accommodate the US government; in fact he would
forge an active alliance with it. AT&T would become
almost a wing of the American government, almost
another Post Office -- though not quite. AT&T would
willingly submit to federal regulation, but in return, it
would use the government's regulators as its own police,
who would keep out competitors and assu