Joybubbles (May 25, 1949 – August 8, 2007), born Josef Carl Engressia, Jr. in Richmond, Virginia, USA, was an early phone phreak. Born blind, he became interested in telephones at age four. He had absolute pitch, and was able to whistle 2600 hertz into a telephone, an operator tone also used by blue box phreaking devices. Joybubbles said that he had an IQ of “172 or something". Joybubbles died at his Minneapolis home on August 8, 2007 (aged 58). According to his death certificate, he died of "natural causes" with "congestive heart failure" as a contributing condition.
As a five-year-old, Engressia discovered he could dial phone numbers by clicking the hang-up switch rapidly ("tapping"), and at the age of 7 he accidentally discovered that whistling at certain frequencies could activate phone switches.
A student at the University of South Florida in the late 1960s, he was given the nickname “Whistler” due to his ability to place free long-distance phone calls by whistling the proper tones with his mouth. After a Canadian operator reported him for selling such calls for $1 at the university, he was suspended and fined $25 but soon reinstated. He later graduated with a degree in philosophy and moved to Tennessee.
According to FBI records, the phone company SBT&T first noticed his phreaking activities in summer 1968, and an employee of the Florida Bell Telephone Company illegally monitored Engressia’s telephone conversations and divulged them to the FBI.
In 1982, he moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. He lived off his Social Security disability pension and a job as a test subject for scent-intensity research. He was an ordained minister of his own Church of Eternal Childhood, and ran a one-man nonprofit support organization for people rediscovering and re-experiencing childhood, called “We Won’t Grow Up”. He tried to remain an active member of the children’s community around his home, giving readings at the local library and setting up phone calls to terminally ill children around the world. He often contributed to the Bulletin Board section of the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper.
Sexually abused as a child by one of his teachers, Joybubbles “reverted to his childhood” in May 1988 and remained there until his death, claiming that he was five years old. He legally changed his name to Joybubbles in 1991, stating that he wanted to put his past, specifically the abuse, behind him. He was listed in the local phone directory as "Joybubbles, I Am".
An avid fan of Mister Rogers, Joybubbles was mentioned in a November 1998 Esquire magazine article about children’s television host Fred Rogers. In the summer of 1998, Joybubbles traveled to the University of Pittsburgh’s Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Archives and listened to several hundred episodes over a span of six weeks.
An active amateur radio operator with the call sign WB0RPA, he held an amateur extra class license, the highest grade issued. As shown in the Federal Communications Commission database, he also earned both a General radiotelephone operator license and a commercial radiotelegraph operator's license, as well as a ship radar endorsement on these certificates. He was also one of the few people to qualify for the now-obsolete aircraft radiotelegraph endorsement on the latter license.
Presence on the media
- In 1971, just after his arrest, Engressia was featured in an Esquire article by Ron Rosenbaum (Secrets of the Little Blue Box) which exposed the phone phreak scene to a general public and led to further media coverage of Engressia, who became a cultural icon.
- The 1992 movie Sneakers had a character named “Whistler”, who seemed to combine traits of both Joybubbles and John Draper. The character of Whistler, played by David Strathairn, is based directly on Engressia.
- The 2001 documentary film The Secret History of Hacking features archive footage of Joybubbles.
- In his book iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak mentions Joybubbles as an early inspiration during his college years.
- On February 21, 2012, WNYC's Radiolab aired a segment on Joybubbles in an episode titled Escape!
- Joybubbles is the subject of an upcoming feature-length documentary film.
- Chapter 9 of the book Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley details his successful plan to get a job by purposely getting arrested for phreaking.
Joybubbles ran a weekly telephone story line called “Stories and Stuff”. Stories and Stuff was usually updated on the weekend.
In the early 1980s, he ran a phone line called the “Zzzzyzzerrific Funline”, which had the distinction of being the very last entry in the phone book. During the Zzzzyzzerrific Funline days, calling himself Highrise Joe, he would go on various rants about how much he loved Valleyfair amusement park and would also regularly play and discuss Up with People.
- "Joe Engressia, Expert 'Phone Phreak,' Dies". All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 20 August 2007.
- "A Conversation with Joybubbles", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 25, 1998, archived from the original on February 18, 2010, retrieved June 10, 2014
- "The History of Phone Phreaking Blog: August 27, 2008".
- Price, David (30 June 2008). "Blind Whistling Phreaks and the FBI's Historical Reliance on Phone Tap Criminality". CounterPunch.
- Lapsley, Phil (2013). Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. Grove Press. pp. 316–317. ISBN 978-0-8021-9375-9. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
- Junod, Tom (November 1998). "Can You Say...Hero?". Esquire.
- Joybubbles - S.K.
- "Sneakers Trivia". IMBD. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
- New York Times Obituary
- New York Times Magazine memorial profile
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette profile (2003)
- 11-20-91 Off the Hook interview / Summary of the Off The Hook interview
- An archive of Stories and Stuff
- A Haxor Radio interview with Joybubbles (April 22, 2004)
- Radiolab audio segment describing Joybubbles' background (Feb 2012)
- A video of Joybubbles making a phone call by whistling on YouTube
- A conversation with Joybubbles from 1998
- Secrets of the Little Blue Box
- Joybubbles: The Documentary Film