Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: The other kind of phone tapping

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  • John Farrell,

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 499 posts Report

  • Brent Jackson, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    The NZ system of having a payphone just disconnect the dial was unusually permissive – in the UK, the exchange knew it was a payphone line and expected some sort of special pulses/tones to indicate money had been loaded before it would connect.

    Yeah. I remember being annoyed that tapping didn't work in London when I got there.

    I did meet a NZer there who had a "batphone". It was a phone with alligator clips on, and a number of public phone boxes in London (the one I saw was in Earls Court) where you could tug the wire down out of the bottom of the payphone to expose two carefully cleaned patches of wire, to which the alligator clips attached. You could then phone for free using your phone, ignoring the pay phone entirely. Afterwards you tucked the wire back up ready for next time.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 620 posts Report

  • John Farrell, in reply to John Farrell,

    And, at the same site, if you look at "exhibits", you can see a video of a crossbar type exchange in action. This was the last type of mechanical exchange installed here.

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 499 posts Report

  • Rich of Observationz,

    I wonder how "modern" card driven payphones work. I suspect they just know how much to charge for a dialed number and take money off the card automatically, the line to the exchange being regular PSTN or possibly naked ADSL with VOIP*

    In this case you could still do what Brent's mate suggested - not that I'd advocate that sort of thing...

    * Telecom/Chorus have had a long-standing plan which has never quite reached fruition to change all voice circuits to ADSL with a VOIP converter for landline phones.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report

  • Kumara Republic,

    This brigs back memories of 1st year university hall of residence. My yearbook entry stated something to the effect of: "Come back at 1am when I've rolled out my 15m modem extension cable."

    The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 5446 posts Report

  • B Jones,

    I'd heard of phone tapping as a kid, and how it worked, but I never tried it. Loved pushing Button B, though, just in case some money came out. Later on, getting a phone card with a sufficient balance was always a hassle, until you could use credit cards. Last time I used a pay phone was a miserable call home from somewhere in the bowels of Heathrow in 2002, which probably cost me $50.

    Prank calling was the dumb entertainment du jour of my peer group, aged around 12. Call, hang up as soon as someone picks up, teeheehee. There were plenty of opportunities for stupidity and nuisance with phones that caller ID and call return functions have probably reduced since then.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report

  • Jeremy Andrew, in reply to James Butler,

    IIRC there's a working, cutaway electromechanical pulse exchange at MOTAT where you can dial a number on a phone and watch the workings clunk away selecting the correct line. I could watch that for hours.

    For the mainlanders, there's a similar setup at Ferrymead (or was, last time I was there - pre-quake)

    Hamiltron - City of the F… • Since Nov 2006 • 900 posts Report

  • Alice Ronald, in reply to Paul Campbell,

    Dobbing in my parents, but Mum & Dad took $5 worth of 1 & 2c coins to the US in 1981 as they'd been told they'd work in phones & laundromats in the place of dimes & nickels. Then they ended up living in a tiny town where they were well known as the only Kiwis, so couldn't use the NZ coinage.

    Family legend has it that when they got snowed in at Reno on the way home, they played the slot machines until they started winning back copper, then left with the US change.

    Christchurch • Since May 2011 • 63 posts Report

  • James Green, in reply to kevinM,

    The machinery used in the exchanges in the 70s and early eighties was really basic. Each pulse would physically cause switches to move to route the call through the exchange.

    The lifts in our building are similarly operated by a good old-fashioned mechanism. My old office was located in what used to be service-only space, and directly across from me were the lift controllers. Approximately the same size as one of those flash side by side two door fridge-freezers, full of electromagnetic switches. Every time something happens with the life, one or more opens or closes. So in the background the entire time was this pattern of clicking. Could also hear the lift motors to a lesser extent, but mostly the clicking.

    (*It also rather resembled the inside of my old pinball machine)

    Limerick, Ireland • Since Nov 2006 • 703 posts Report

  • Ian Dalziel, in reply to James Green,

    Schindler's Lift...

    ...full of electromagnetic switches. Every time something happens with the lift, one or more opens or closes. So in the background the entire time was this pattern of clicking. ...
    It also rather resembled the inside of my old pinball machine

    I had an old pinball machine, pre-flippers, more of a Bagatelle machine really, but that reassuring 'clatter' of activated solenoids was a magical sound - state-of-the-art for its time...
    so so modern...

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7953 posts Report

  • Yoza,

    When you were in one of the old mechanical exchanges it was easy to tell if someone was tapping a phone as the armature that used to move down and click against the various contacts would move really slowly.

    Wellington • Since Oct 2007 • 12 posts Report

  • JonathanM,

    A bit later on (after PSTN) you could do another trick to get a dialtone on a payphone. You dialed an 0800 number to get a connection, then you disconnect and reconnect the line (cable to phone). This worked on payphones, but did require cutting/intercepting the cable so it could be tapped out and back on again. This was generally pretty easy, as payphone boxes used to be colour-coded yellow+black, so if one pulled up the nearby phone lines box (grey tube) the phonebox line was pretty quickly spotted.

    Er, or so I heard.

    I recall someone installed a switch under the phone jack of a payphone at a certain university's halls of residence to enable free calls using this technique.

    Since Jul 2012 • 64 posts Report

  • Timmy H,

    In addition to the *137 thing, I'm pretty sure dialling 1851 told you what landline number you were dialling from.

    Since Feb 2008 • 10 posts Report

  • Paul Campbell,

    just about everything use to run on relays - I remember being able to change street lights to "cross" by bumping the box the relays were in really hard ...... (in retropect that wasn't a smart thing to do)

    Similarly back when we took the train to school we noticed that there was a rubber insulator between the rails at the stop/go light, when the train came there were sparks and the light changed .... one day we shorted it out to see what would happen - the lights changed, and all the trains stopped (not just the school train) all of them - we were late for school - next day there were railways people all over us asking questions ..... (in retropect that wasn't a smart thing to do)

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2623 posts Report

  • william blake,

    In the mid eighties we lived in a remote part of West Auckland and the only form of communication was the red phone box by the ford. We didn't use it that often but it was a vital safety service as there was a low tide boat ramp there for the manukau harbour. I recall our local Vietnam vet putting the phone out of order by trying to 'tap' through to the CIA , he didn't break the phone, he just couldn't get through and stayed in there with a six pack and an ounce, for nearly two days. Tragic in hindsight.

    Since Mar 2010 • 380 posts Report

  • jon_knox, in reply to Tom Barker,

    Mid-late 90's there was certainly ongoing issues for BT with payphones. BT were working for a long time to rectify a problem with a particular variant of payphone, as it was rumoured that there were 4000 of the particular model payphone in London alone. I suspect this was merely a single instance in a list of problems for BT stretching all the way back to Rr Bell himself.

    The queues formed round the clock were generally the easiest way to identify an affected phone and invariably involved use of a single £1 (coin) for long distance calling,. The coin would be refunded at the end of the call which could only last as long as the credit pertaining to a single coin permitted. This wasn't very long if one was dialling NZ, certainly less than a minute, perhaps as little as 20 seconds.

    After trying it a couple of times, the pain threshold for me became too great to bother to call NZ, but for weeks (perhaps months) I continued to notice the queue at the local payphone. The use of these payphones was perhaps an alternative to the use of the operator assisted reverse charge calling at a predetermined time. The predetermined call would be refused to let people back in NZ that you were OK which seemed to be used by the mythical pub dwelling inhabitants of Earls Court in the decades preceding. Later I believe other variants of this costless-all-OK call were devised/used.

    Belgium • Since Nov 2006 • 464 posts Report

  • Paul Campbell, in reply to Gregor Ronald,

    After the big Chch quake, our POTS landline with analog handset was our lifeline. Cell tower batteries died after 12 hours, phones died in a day or so, but the old school phone plugged on…

    It used to be the cellars of telehone exchanges were lined in lead, and were in effect giant lead acid batteries - a really bad earthquake and you're going to see a particularly evil toxic spill. (I once worked in the old Palo Alto telephone exchange, it had been co0nverted to office space, thebasement was a colo space, the F DNS server lived there back when there was just one - we had to go through there to move stuff occasionally, it wasn't encouraged because of the lead residue)

    Historically the 50v that comes down your phone line to power your home phone is called "battery".

    Now days it probably just comes from your local cabinet, I have no idea how it gets there, once all the cabinets are fed with fibre, there are probably some batteries in there but not a whole cellar's worth

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2623 posts Report

  • TracyMac, in reply to Josh Petyt,

    Shout-out to the Tooting massive. I lived just off T. Broadway in the late 90s. My memories are mostly of the market and the awesome second hand bookshop. All those English classics for a couple of quid! For some reason, I never made it to the Lido, and I still don't know why not.

    Canberra, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 701 posts Report

  • Gabor Toth,

    Tapping still works folks, though alas not with pay phones (when you can find one). I recall trying it a year ago on a home phone in a fit of nostalgia and was surprised that it still worked. The exchanges can still read pulses for the few remaining old phones which still use them (some 1980s Telecom push-button "PERT" phones had a switch on the bottom with which you could select either tones or pulses). All you need is a home land-line and an old-school (wired and corded) phone that doesn't use any auxiliary power. Every home that has a land-line should have such a "dumb" phone anyway for emergencies and power outages (cheap as chips from the Warehouse etc).
    Our exchanges still interpret pulses back-to-front from the international standard, so take your number, subtract each figure from ten (best to write the whole thing out), grab your land-line and tap the resulting number rapidly on the "hook" button with a short pause between each figure. I called my mother earlier this evening to check if it would still work and it still goes fine (and it felt as if I was 12 years old again!). I had a huge grin on my face when the call went through and my mum picked up the phone.

    Wellington • Since Dec 2006 • 137 posts Report

  • Jeremy Crowley,

    We still have an old Bakelite phone wired in at the entrance of our house. It was purely a nostalgia trip until the earthquakes. Dang the handset is heavy and the call sound very distant and tinny. I also had a phone wired up to my room when I was flatting and I would occassionally dial the old call back number on the weekend, because the only other phone in the flat was in the kitchen / dining room I would wait until one of my flatmates got up to answer it and then lift my finger off of the receiver switch and politely ask them to put on the kettle / toaster seeing as they were already up.
    The main reason that people tapped the phone as kid's was because the combination of 3 x 2c coins was rare especially in the era of the 10c & 20c mixture.

    Otautahi • Since Nov 2008 • 24 posts Report

  • Alfie, in reply to Jeremy Crowley,

    The main reason that people tapped the phone as kid's was because the combination of 3 x 2c coins was rare especially in the era of the 10c & 20c mixture.

    I'm from an earlier era than you Jeremy. I was tapping phones in the early 60s and in that pre-decimal time we could still buy a penny mixture at Jones' dairy on the corner. In those heady days we all lived life in black & white and a local call cost 2d (tuppence).

    I still have half a dozen of those wonderful, heavy, black bakelite phones in storage, some of them brand new, complete with the original Post Office tags. They're such beautiful, anachronistic objects. I keep hoping they'll shoot up in value one day, but that hasn't happened yet.

    I must say that I'm finding this thread to be an absolute delight. ;-)

    Dunedin • Since May 2014 • 1440 posts Report

  • Paul Campbell,

    I remember my delight in the telephone in a scene in Heavenly Creatures all black with that braided cord - just like my grandmother's

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2623 posts Report

  • Paul Campbell,

    BTW being the only country in the world with a backwards dial was a particular problem with push button phones, while the chips one could buy to manufacture them would happily make standard DTMF tones they wouldn’t make backwards dial pulses – in the US the various phone companies charged a premium for a DTMF capable line for many years, in NZ there was intense pressure to provide DTMF to support electronic phones

    extra BTW: more about ‘battery’ – in California the phone company is required by law to be able to operate even if all the phones in the state get picked up at the same time (ie the big one hits) provided they don’t all dial, that means enough battery to power all the phones at once

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2623 posts Report

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Alfie,

    I must say that I’m finding this thread to be an absolute delight. ;-)

    Me too! And thanks for providing our earliest report of tapping activity.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22850 posts Report

  • Jeremy Masters,

    So handy. Worked for me at boarding school in '92 on an 'incoming only' phone. Freedom!!

    I ended up getting a digital keypad on the streets of Hong Kong that allowed me to type the numbers like a calculator and do the pulsing audibly into the handset. I felt like a right super spy at the time.

    New Zealand • Since Apr 2015 • 1 posts Report

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