For Whom the Bell Tolls Again
Or Arrested for Being Inventive
Or Bullied by Ma Bell
This is a story about a young ham radio operator from the Philadelphia area and also an employee of the Bell System at the time and how he innovated an idea of creating a device very similar to the Cell Phone that almost everyone carrys today and how Bell Telephone and A T & T jumped before they investigated, creating a nightmare for this person for 15 months. Bare in mind that the year is 1971. Also, understand that this device is 6 years old at this point. You should also know that this young man is an FCC licensed amateur radio operator and that he made no attempt to hide his invention or even to patent it.
The background, which follows, is important to understanding what actually happened.
Meet Gene Mitchell, 29 years old, single, employed and very happy with his work. He enjoys his hobby of amateur radio as well as roller skating at various rinks in the Philadelphia area. He volunteers time to be the Civil Defense Radio Officer for Lower Merion Township. He is also an officer in the local radio club, Main Line VHF Association. Gene began his interest in radio as a cub scout in 5 th grade, first building a crystal radio and later, building a short wave radio, both from the scout manuals.
While in the eighth grade, he meets a classmate who is a licensed ham operator. The bug bites and Gene studies for his license. He passes the tests and builds a transmitter and begins talking to the world by morse code. He passes another test and obtains a license so he can actually talk over his radio to all corners of the world. In fact, he enjoys the hobby so much that he shares it with fellow campers at a camp he went to in New Hampshire. He was responsible for licensing at least a dozen campers and well as the director of the camp. Ham Radio is Gene's life.
After high school, Gene goes to school to learn electronics at Valparaiso Technical Institute in Indiana. He meets other fellow ham operators there. He became part of a group that met every Friday night for a "fox hunt" for two semesters. Fox hunting is having one ham hide somewhere in the county and the others in the group trying to find him by locating his radio signal as it became stronger or weaker in different directions.
Gene also became interested in the school radio station, WVTI. He became a DJ and later moved up to transmitter engineer. He also became interested in the local sheriff's department where he became a "special deputy" and radio dispatcher. If that wasn't enough, Gene took up roller skating several times a week. In between all this, the county gave him the opportunity to attend police school two nights a week. Ham radio, roller skating, and radio dispatching keep him busy.
In school, he studied electronics, math, computers and communications, including police radio systems. He became very interested in radio relay systems or repeaters. He even built a repeater system for hams to use at the school. The school ham station also had a phone patch, a device used to couple the ham radio to the phone line. The purpose of this is to allow a person on the radio to make a phone call by ham radio. It was a common practice, particularly patching someone at a distant location to a local phone call. Hams often did this for military personel.
Gene came up with the idea of making an automatic phone patch using his repeater system. At this time, touchtone was not available, so he obtained a commercial tone decoder that decoded dial pulses. His syetem was quite workable in his last year at school and he even brought it home for hams to see in his hometown, during school vacations. He called this system an "autopatch".
He graduated in 1965, getting a job with Ma Bell almost immediately. The idea of an autopatch was actually catching on in other ham communities. Gene made no attempt to keep his idea a secret. As a matter of fact, he shared the idea with everyone. Autopatches were springing up in California, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other places. Articles were starting to appear in ham magazines. He even contacted a ham in California who had published an article in a magazine. As a matter of fact, Gene published an article about his own autopatch system in a magazine called "73" not long after.
Gene refined his project over the years. His first patch operated between the 6 and 2 meter ham bands. His second version operated on 2 meters, and his last version operated on the 449 mhz amateur band. The 449mhz system was a beaut. In 1968, Gene had his own house in Devon, Pa on a very high hill. He purchased a used Motorola 440 mhz handie talkie and strapped a touchtone dial to the back. It wasn't much bigger than the Cell Phone of today. Gene found he could make calls over his home phone and even answer his home phone for miles around.
Most people at this time, knew it was frowned on by Ma Bell to connect even an extension phone in their own home. "Phone Couplers" became available from the phone company and Gene ordered one right away. At first, he obtained a manual coupler, a QKT as it was called, and he used a solonoid to physically raise the phone handset, coupling the audio to the "phone coupler".
Gene worked at the AT & T Long Lines in Wayne. As a benefit, he had free long distance service and half price local service. He had even shown his system to co-workers, though most didn't understand what Gene was doing and even why.
Roller Skating remained with Gene as a past time after graduation. He was off to the rinks usually 4-5 nights of the week. Since he traveled to rinks from Allentown, to Reading, To Douglasville, and Exton, he had a good chance to test the autopatch for distance in all directions. The autopatch was refined and improved with a UHF repeater at his new house in Devon, Pa where an elevation of 560 feet on the South Valley Hills gave an average distance of 40-60 miles range.
Occassionally, while waiting for the rinks to open, he would talk on the ham set. Occasionally too, he would get a phone call on his home phone and answered it from his car ham set. Others watching were very impressed. On one occasion, while waiting in the parking lot of the Exton Skating rink, a skater came up to him and watched Gene use the phone patch. Ken, as we will know him, told Gene of his little toy too. He claimed he could call all over the world with his little box connected to the phone and it didn't cost any money to make his calls. Gene had never heard of this up to this time, even though he worked for the Bell System. He became very interested and started asking many questions.
The following Monday, he told his boss at work (A T & T) who shrugged it off as "not possible". He then went to a friend in the district office of A T & T, who was also a ham operator, who went to someone else with the story. Ace came back with "he couldn't have any such thing, because if he did, he would get caught".
Several weeks went by and one day, Ken called Gene at work (A T & T). Ken placed a call with his "Blue Box" on his second phone line so Gene could hear it. This was the first time that he had actually heard the device. It put out tones that were different to touchtone. Ken had asked Gene several questions such as area codes and routing codes to different cities. Routing codes are area codes plus an extra 3 digits that operators used to give out freely. Ken also asked about a number that he had called, an Autovon Code. Gene explained that it was a test number where a regular phone could call into an Autovon Test Center for testing purposes. (Autovon is a private government switching network maintained by AT&T). The code was class restricted so there would be no crossover to other than test telephones.
Bell Telephone, later used this opportunity to get the government and public excited, claiming that the Autovon code had been cracked. Note now that it was Ken that already had these numbers and he was asking about them. The Autovon number did cross into the private government network by switching through the regular DDD network through a special test trunk, but posed no threat as class restriction would not let it go to any but certain test lines.
Ken also told Gene in this conversation, to call a certain number in New York that gave a party line connection of many "phone phreaks" talking about what they were doing. The number could be dialed by anyone on any telephone and was supposed to be toll free. As it turned out, the number was a disconnected one on an intercept recording where the recording wasn't working. Anyone who called, got connected to the intercept trunk and since it was quiet, could talk together. At the time, it was not known how this happened and Gene became very concerned because he heard conversations concerning how to rip off the phone company. They were instructions on how to call and where to call by those who were claiming to rip off the Bell System. Again, he informed his boss but also again, there seemed to be no interest. After hearing the amount of people involved in this intercom connection and what was discussed, he decided to go one step further and notify someone who would be interested and concerned. He didn't find any number in the phone book that would relate to what was happening and the Bell business office even didn't know what he was talking about. The operator didn't know what he was talking about either, so he called A T & T in White Plains, New York. They gave him a number for securities. After finding that stocks and bonds didn't fit in, they did give him a number to call. He called and reported his information.
Bell Security, as it turned out to be, seemed to have a very un-esthetic attitude toward the matter and that led Gene to believe that they weren't even interested. As it turned out, they had him under surveillance since the phone call that Ken had made the past Friday. Security didn't know what to think, so they "jumped the gun" and acted. It's September, 1971. At dinner that same night, 3 men knocked on Gene's door with a search warrant. A township policeman accompanied the 2 men to his house, but said nothing and did nothing at any time. The two men were security agents from Bell. They searched every corner of Gene's house and confiscated all kinds of electronic equipment, including touchtone dials and ham equipment. They also inventoried all the remaining electronic equipment there. They also asked lots of questions. The security agents asked Gene to accompany them to the court-house in West Chester for further questioning. Not knowing what was intended, and trying to help, Gene consented to go. The township policeman left the house and went his own way while the security agents took Gene to West Chester.
No one said anything about arrests or even rights. At the courthouse, he was questioned for more than 5 hours of hard drilling. Threats were made of spending a long time in jail. One detective placed his hand in a back swing position and threatened to swing on several occasions if he didn't admit to having a "blue box". Sometime after midnight, they finally said we were going to be taken to a judge for arraignment. Again, no one informed him of any rights he may have had. No one even said he was under arrest. He was never placed in handcuffs. It was in the car on the way to the Judge that he asked if he was under arrest. They told him yes because they knew he had a Blue Box and that he didn't cooperate.
Also arrested that same night, were 4 or 5 others including Ken, a telephone company operator, and others that he had never seen before or heard about. As it turned out, Bell started tapping Ken's telephone weeks before and Gene became involved by the calls that Ken made. Gene's phone line went on tap the Friday of the call from Ken to him at work. Gene was released on $50,000 bail that night and the next morning found he had lost his job with A T & T. No one understood what an autopatch was, but the touchtone dials were photographed and the newspapers had a hay day.
Bell agents claimed they had broken up a large ring of phone phreaks that was cheating their system. The touchtone dials that came from Gene's House and car were sent to Bell Labs for evaluation. They came back from Bell Labs as "just ordinary touchtone dials". An interesting note, by the way: none were Western Electric touchtone dials. Gene had purchased them from Graybar, a supplier of telephone equipment to other companies.
Bell then proceeded with the idea that the autopatch was defrauding the Bell Network by bypassing normal means of calling. They didn't understand or want to understand the patch, the QKT coupler, or the handset Lift system, although they never took that equipment.
It is interesting to note that Bell took a very defensive and different look at the case when Gene's lawyer accused Bell of "wiretapping". Bell had presented recordings of Ken's and Gene's conversations. When confronted with wiretapping, Bell claimed that the recorder only started when illegal tones came on the phone line. What was obvious, was that the only tones that were recorded were normal touchtones at the beginning of the call, except when Ken demonstrated his device to Gene. Bell insisted that the recorder started with illegal tones.
One two occasions, while Gene was away from home, his house was broken in to. There was something strange about both break ins. Only certain items were taken and they included the touchtone receiver out of the 450 repeater, another touchtone dial that had been recently purchased, and documentation on the repeater system. The second ocasion occured after Gene had opened a roller rink. Only certain electronic equipment was taken, but this time, some household items were also taken. Police were called to investigate but they only took reports. They did comment that what was taken was really strange. Nothing turned up.
Other strange things happened over the course of many months including the accidental disconnect of Gene's phone service. It was placed on "intercept", the recording that says service has been disconnected. On one occasion, when repair was called, they asked why there were extra wires going to the terminals in the central office in the Conshohocken exchange. It was determined that Bell still had a tap on his line.
On another incident, Gene was attacked and beaten and asked what he knew about blue-boxes by 2 older men. They wanted to know how Bell discovered his "Blue Box" and how he used it. Gene relates that evidently, someone was very interested in their use.
It is interesting to note another fallacy in Bell's story and testimony: that Bell stated that a "maintenance man" from the West Chester telephone central office stumbled onto Ken's illegal calls by a "tip test". A tip test is the test used to determine if a line is busy by touching the test set cord to the jack or a persons line or a trunk circuit. If the headset clicks when you touch the jack, the circuit is busy. If it doesn't click, the circuit is idle or available. What actually happens, and Gene's believes this is the case here, Bell workers that are bored or for amusement frequently just poke around in the jack field and monitor calls. Sometimes, when an interesting call is found, it is "jacked" to the loud speaker for other workers to hear. Gene believes that this is how the case was discovered. Gene had heard the Bell Security man tell the Bell worker from West Chester where the original call was heard to remember not to mention monitoring. To further back up the monitoring issue, A T & T personnel were caught just a year or so before with a National football game up on the monitor that came through the Wayne office. The patch was made wrong so conversation in the test room actually went out on the air and A T & T was embarrassed into tracing the the source- their own facilities. A T & T used to connect Networks across the country before networks put in their own facilities.
It was Bell's "hard nosed" attitude that "nothing should be connected to their System" that kept criminal charges going for almost a year before they were finally dropped by the court. His lawyer had filed motions to dismiss because of illegal wiretapping by Bell, as a way to get them off Gene's back. They tried to strike a deal with Ken to testify that Gene did have a Blue Box so that they could get off the hook for liable. Bell tried everything, even after Bell labs determined that all Gene had was a touchtone dial. They tried to claim Gene had stolen equipment from work. Gene had obtained "passes" for anything he had ever taken out of work. Again, Bell's attempt failed. They then tried to claim that autopatches were illegal and that calls placed on them by-passed their network. One statement to the local paper by a Bell spokesman said "one of these phone phreaks tried to call himself a ham operator so he could call all over the world free". Gene insists to this day that he never had this so-called blue box that he was accused of having. He states that he never even saw one except in a magazine and newspaper picture. Bell was never able to find any such device or anyone that ever saw him with one.
One statement that Gene had made on a recorded phone conversation was that he had given "his unit" to Steve to work on, referring to another portable radio. Bell tried to drag Gene's friend Steve into the case. It became a crusade by Bell to try to nail Gene. Bell simply couldn't back down and admit a mistake because of a lawsuit that was being prepared by Gene. Bell's mistake came from the premature conclusions without an investigation into the entire situation.
It took almost a year to settle the criminal charges and nine and a half years in civil court before a settlement was reached. Gene settled in 1980 after his lawyer informed him that Bell would appeal all the way to the supreme court if he didn't settle. They had delayed the suit using all kinds of actions including calling for dismissals, claiming they were exempt, that they were only protecting their system, etc.
One big part of Gene's civil case was actually dismissed. This was because Gene couldn't prove he was actually financially harmed. Gene had built a Roller Rink after his arrest and was making more money than he would have if he remained with Bell. Gene was getting kind of tired of the whole matter too as there were nine and a half years of depositions and dismissal hearings.
Gene found the legal system also had different problems. A lawyer, in the beginning, took a retainer to defend him and then told him he could not defend him because the autopatch was illegal. The lawyer kept the retainer and walked away. Gene couldn't do anything about it. Lawyers didn't go after lawyers then.
Gene built and opened his roller rink in 1972, just a year after the incident happened. No one wanted to hire him while the case was pending. The hearings and depositions did interfered with the operating of the rink, so his decision to settle out of court was in his best interest..
This story you just read is completely true. This is Gene's version. Gene's story was partially written up in a magazine called OUI. He was interviewed for it, however, Gene says some minor facts were wrong and it was incomplete. His story was also written in a book called "The Phone Book" by J. Edward Hyde published in 1976 by Henry Regnery Co. The Library of Congress Catalog Card No. is 76-6275. The story about this starts on page 86. By the way, he does not know how the story got in the book as he was not interviewed for it. It came as a surprise when a copy of the book was sent to him.
This article Copyright 1986, All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means including electronic distribution, in whole or in part, without the prior written permission of the author or publisher.