Rare Wozniak-Jobs "blue box" phone phreaking device could fetch $100,000
Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs had a brief and highly illegal business manufacturing and selling phone phreaking gear prior to founding Apple computer in 1976. Now one of the original circuit boards hand-made by Wozniak for the first iteration "blue box" in 1972 is going to auction, with an estimate of US$8,000 to $12,000.
Designed by Wozniak, the blue box was the very first collaboration between the Lennon & McCartney of the digital age, with the pair selling somewhere between 40 (Wozniak’s estimate) and 100 (Jobs’ estimate) blue boxes at $170 each before almost being caught by the police and shutting the business down. It wasn't such a big deal for Wozniak and Jobs, as each box took a day to build, and with the cost of the components accounting for most of the price, the risk/reward ratio was heavily stacked against the product - highly illegal activities usually only survive if there's a spectacular ROI to compensate for the risk.
Four years later, the pair set up their second business together: Apple Computer, now worth $1.967 trillion.
Not surprisingly, the Wozniak-Jobs blue box was innovative and a world-first digital hacking tool, as all previous such apparatus used by phreakers had been analog devices. Phreakers used such devices to game the telephone system, make free phone calls anywhere in the world, plus a host of other highly illegal practices.
In a 1995 interview, Jobs said of the blue box: “We were so fascinated by them (blue boxes) that Woz and I figured out how to build one. We built the best one in the world; the first digital blue box in the world. We would give them to our friends and use them ourselves. And you know, you rapidly run out of people you want to call. But it was the magic that two teenagers could build this box for $100 worth of parts and control 100’s of billions of dollars of infrastructure in the entire telephone network in the whole world …
“Experiences like that taught us the power of ideas. The power of understanding that if you could build this box, you could control 100’s of billions of dollars around the world, that’s a powerful thing. If we wouldn’t have made blue boxes, there would have been no Apple."
As the blue boxes were highly illegal and were confiscated and destroyed if found by the authorities, very few are known to remain. There’s one in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, and only one other “blue box” has ever reached public auction – in 2017, a complete blue box sold at Bonhams’ History of Science and Technology sale (this same sale three years ago), for $125,000.
The item going to auction on November 5 is simply the circuit board from a blue box, but because it was hand-made by Wozniak, and very few are known to still exist, it might well sell for even more than $125,000, despite an estimate of just $8,000 to $12,000.
It’s one of a handful of genuine examples of the very first digital hacking tool – a significant milestone in a landmark intellectual pursuit, and subsequently a landmark industry.