How a Child’s Toy Helped Hackers

Cereal companies have long used box prizes as an inducement for children to nag parents into buying sugary breakfast food. From movie tie-in toys to video games on CD, cereal box baubles tend to be momentarily thrilling and then quickly forgotten — except when they’re used for hacking. Only one cereal box toy has that distinction: the Cap’n Crunch Bo’sun Whistle. Meant to replicate the whistles used by boatswains to signal mealtimes or commands, the multicolored whistles came in boxes of Cap’n Crunch starting in the mid-1960s. One fell into the hands of John Draper, a former Air Force electronics technician, who was part of an underground culture that predated hacking as we know it. Early hackers — called "phone phreaks" — played certain tones through their phones to bypass AT&T’s analog system and get free long-distance phone calls. Draper heard about the whistle, which easily played at 2600Hz — the perfect tone to seize a phone line. Draper spent time in jail for toll fraud, but later also wrote software used by IBM and Apple. Today, Cap’n Crunch whistles are historical objects, even displayed at the Telephone Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts.