Hacking Networks: Barbed Bells

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This article from a few days ago was fascinating, and about a very early hacker’s network: Farmers and Ranchers in the early days of the 1900s, using barbed wire for phone lines!

In 1894, the patent on the phone ran out, and Alexander Graham Bell no longer had exclusive rights to sell it…but his company *did* own the largest network on which to run it and make it useful. Someone discovered that barbed wire fences made a decent conductor, however, and was able to turn the fences stretching for miles from ranch to ranch and farm to farm into a massive party line – anyone could talk and listen, and distinctive ring patterns were used to separate who was calling.

To get around this… some communities developed a system where each ranch had its own ring — a unique combination of short and long sounds. Due to the nature of the phone system, the ring would sound on every phone in the network, day or night. Also, while it was customary to only pick up if your ring was the one being sounded, anyone else could (and often did) eavesdrop.

Second, the barbed wire fences were only good transmitters if they stayed up. The bulls that the fences held in were not privy to this system and didn’t always cooperate, at times taking down the entire phone network as they made their escape. This had a silver lining, though. As the New York Times noted in a 1901 report on barbed wire phone systems, at least the ranchers now had a way of knowing that the cattle were escaping: the phone suddenly stopped working.

What’s amazing about this system is that it persisted and grew for many years…until the main system, with it’s superior switching system which *wouldn’t* ring everyone at the same time, took over. The hacked network quickly fell from use.

What networks can you hack to accomplish something new?



Daniel Stillman
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