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From: David Farber <dave <at> farber.net>
Subject: The Twilight Years of Cap'n Crunch
Newsgroups: gmane.culture.people.interesting-people
Date: Saturday 13th January 2007 20:35:49 UTC (over 10 years ago)
Begin forwarded message:

From: "John F. McMullen" 
Date: January 13, 2007 3:18:30 PM EST
To: Dave Farber , Dewayne Hendricks  

Cc: Commonweal Mailing List 
Subject: The Twilight Years of Cap'n Crunch

(johnmac -- I first talked to John Draper in the late 1970s / early  
1980s when the Big Apple User Group ("BAUG") was running an "Apple  
Fair" in New York City and I was lining up speakers. Draper had  
written the first well known word processor for the Apple II, "Easy  
Writer", had changed his handle from "Cap'n Crunch" to "Cap'n  
Software", and was supposedly hard at work on a Fortran compiler for  
the Apple II. He agreed to speak and, for months, would call me at  
3AM in the morning to tell me how hard he was working but that he  
would be there -- and then rant on about other interesting things.  
John had no conception of time differences between the West Coast  
where he was and the East Coast where I was -- or. rather, he had no  
conception of time period. As I wrote above, this went on for months  
-- but he never showed up.

Over the succeeding years, I had the opportunity to talk to John on  
the phone a number of times when I interviewed him on occasion for  
Newsbytes and then, in 1990, I was standing with him, Mark Abene (a/k/ 
a Phiber Optik), and Kevin Kelly, the editor of Wired at the first  
Computer, Freedom, & Privacy Conference (CFP-1) in San Francisco when  
Phiber said, pointing to Don Delaney of the New York State Police,  
"There's my arresting officer"; Draper, now back to "Cap'n Crunch",  
pointed to Don Inghrahm and said "There's my prosecuting attorney";  
and Kelly turned to me "I feel out of place without my own law  
enforcement official".

Not long after that, the movie "Sneakers" came out with a character  
supposedly based on Draper. Draper was interviewed on television and  
somewhat gloried in the attention -- until he found that he was fired  
from his job. When I spoke to him, he was very bitter -- "I did  
nothing wrong here"; he had been told that they lost business and  
that he was being laid off because the other developers were more  
proficient on the Macintosh --- who knew.

People on the West Coast who knew John, such as Jim Warren, founder  
of InfoWorld, The West Coast Computer Faire, and CFP, were often kind  
to John, mainly because of his history rather than any new  
contributions that he was making.

BTW, the article says that IBM chose "Easy Writer" "over competition  
from other programmers, including a young Bill Gates" -- as far as I  
know this is untrue. Gates was not doing any competition as "a young  
programmer" at the time; Microsoft was already a flourishing company,  
the leader in programming languages at the time (if not yet operating  
systems) and, once again as far as I remember, did not have a word  
processing program at the time (MS-Word came much later) while Draper  
had the leading word processor at the time on the Apple II, "Easy  
Writer". I suspect that Draper, often hazy on facts, embellished the  
story for the author.)  .

 From the Wall Street Journal -- http://online.wsj.com/article/ 

The Twilight Years of Cap'n Crunch
Silicon Valley legend John Draper made his name with brains and  
pranks, before slipping to the margins
Three jail stints and the 'rave' scene

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Underneath a highway bisecting this Silicon  
Valley town, home to Google Inc. and other tech giants, John Draper  
crammed his bulky frame through the door of a friend's home: a  
battered 1978 Chevy diesel bus.

Radio parts, a wrench set, arthritis medication and a book on  
robotics cluttered the dashboard. A padded bench for sleeping and a  
greasy stove filled the back.

"What do you want for lunch?" asked Dave Bengel, a self-taught engineer.

"Salmon," responded Mr. Draper, 63, who has few teeth and wears the  
same clothes for days. He is better known in Silicon Valley as "Cap'n  
Crunch," a legendary figure who 25 years ago epitomized the  
freewheeling, prank-filled culture that gave birth to high tech.

"Salmon, all right!" cried Mr. Bengel. He set about preparing the  
meal -- obtained free from a Whole Foods worker who leaves outdated  
products near a dumpster at a prearranged time.

In the decades since Mr. Draper gained fame for his hacking skills as  
a "phone phreak" -- he once claimed to have gotten then-President  
Nixon on the phone -- Silicon Valley has aged and matured. Pioneers  
that Mr. Draper worked with, such as Apple's Steve Jobs, have gone on  
to become wealthy members of the business establishment.

THEN THERE is "Cap'n Crunch," part of an aging community of high-tech  
wunderkinds. Once tolerated, even embraced, for his eccentricities,  
Mr. Draper now lives on the margins of this affluent world, still  
striving to carve out a role in the business mainstream.

Although his appearance and hand-to-mouth existence belie it, Mr.  
Draper developed one of the first word-processing programs as well as  
the technology that made possible voice-activated telephone menus. He  
receives invitations to speak to foreign governments and  
international conferences. At a recent celebration of Apple Inc.'s  
30th anniversary, Mr. Draper, sporting a straggly beard, stood to  
contribute a story, causing the room to break into applause.

Mr. Draper spent three stints in jail in the 1970s for tampering with  
the phone system. A court-appointed psychiatrist once found him to be  
"psychotic," although another found nothing wrong with him. Until a  
fall at a conference in Istanbul aggravated a back injury, Mr. Draper  
was a regular in the rave scene, where people gather in remote  
locations and dance through the night to electronic music. Mr. Draper  
once did $10,000 worth of Web-site design and other computer work for  
a Bay-area therapist in return for physical therapy on his back  
because he lacks health insurance.

"When I first met him, he was toothless, wearing ripped jeans and  
looked like a hippie," says Tolga Katas, a music producer and  
computer programmer in Las Vegas who recently hired Mr. Draper to do  
technical work for his new Web entertainment company. "Then I learned  
what he has done and was blown away."

Mr. Draper calls aging veterans like himself part of an "off-the- 
grid" community. Steve Inness, 47, helped develop touch-screen  
cellphone technology and does programming work for startups. In  
recent years, he's lived on the floors and couches of employers; he  
was last seen hitchhiking in the desert outside Las Vegas. Roy  
Kaylor, 68, built one of the first electric cars in the early 1970s  
and contributed to a government-supported effort to develop the  
technology. He lives in a trailer without electricity in the Santa  
Cruz mountains. Mr. Draper's recent lunch host, Mr. Bengel, 61,  
designed an electrohydraulic machine tool and says he has worked for  
several Silicon Valley companies.

Mr. Draper is the best known. "He was the king of the nerds," says  
Allan Lundell, who runs an independent film company and has  
chronicled the evolution of Silicon Valley.

Mr. Draper's father was a U.S. Air Force engineer and the family  
moved frequently. His younger brother, Ron, recalls John rummaging  
for electronic parts on military bases where the family lived, on one  
occasion building a radio station in his bedroom.

John was not an easy child, often bucking under the authority of his  
sometimes-distant father, who is now deceased. John threw tantrums  
when his parents smoked, says Ron, a piano teacher. Mr. Draper says  
he hated his parents' smoking and felt aggrieved by their refusal to  

"Our father didn't understand what John needed, which was a constant  
supply of education and resources," says Ron. "He absorbed this stuff  
like a sponge." Ron Draper says his parents briefly sought  
psychiatric treatment for his brother when he was a child for what  
they said was a "chemical imbalance.

"I liked the sessions," says Mr. Draper of the psychiatric  
counseling. "At least someone was listening to me." He acknowledges  
he can become obsessive but denies the idea there's anything wrong  
with him.

In 1964, after taking some college courses, Mr. Draper joined the Air  
Force, which his parents thought would provide much-needed  
discipline. He was sent to Alaska and later Maine, where he served as  
a radar technician. Since the soldiers had only one phone line on  
which to call home, Mr. Draper began tinkering with the access codes  
and figured out how to make free calls through the local switchboard.

After an honorable discharge in 1968, he built gear for several  
companies in the San Francisco Bay area. But his work, much of which  
was military-related, was out of step with the counterculture  
blooming around him. Mr. Draper grew his hair and began spending more  
time on a pirate radio station, which he operated from the back of  
his green Volkswagen van to make it harder for authorities to track  
the signal. He also turned his attention to the phone system, an  
attraction for like-minded techies before the arrival of personal  

Mr. Draper learned how to make free calls by imitating the tones used  
by the phone company. He learned from other "phone phreaks" -- as the  
hackers called themselves -- including blind teenagers with near- 
perfect pitch. Mr. Draper learned that a toy whistle found in a  
cereal box would also imitate the required tones, earning him the  
nickname Cap'n Crunch.

The point was not just to make free calls but to explore and learn  
from the phone company's rich and complicated system. On one  
occasion, Mr. Draper says he learned the code word needed to speak  
with the president -- "Olympus" -- and got through to someone on a  
secure line he thought was President Nixon. Mr. Draper says he told  
the man about a toilet-paper shortage in Los Angeles.

Authorities began to take notice, particularly after a lengthy  
article on phone phreaking appeared in the October 1971 edition of  
Esquire magazine. Mr. Draper, the group's ringleader, was arrested  
for the first time several months later on charges of wire fraud, and  
received a five-year probation.

The Esquire article also caught the attention of Steve Wozniak, an  
eventual Apple co-founder, who invited Mr. Draper to his dorm room at  
the University of California at Berkeley. When Mr. Draper appeared  
that evening, Mr. Wozniak, then 21, was taken aback by his guest's  
appearance and odor, Mr. Wozniak wrote in his recent autobiography.

"Are you Cap'n Crunch?" Mr. Wozniak asked in disbelief, according to  
the book.

"I am he," Mr. Draper responded as he strode into the room.

Mr. Draper showed Mr. Wozniak and a friend, Mr. Jobs, how to build a  
device that could produce telephone tones. The pair turned the  
knowledge into a small business on the Berkeley campus, their first  
collaboration before founding Apple a few years later.

Mr. Wozniak employed Mr. Draper at Apple, where as a contractor in  
1977 he designed a device that could immediately identify phone  
signals and lines -- such as ones that made free calls -- something  
modems were not able to do for a decade. The technology would later  
be used for tone-activated calling menus, voice mail and other purposes.

APPLE DROPPED the device, called a phone board, anxious to avoid  
negative publicity from its association with illegal phoning,  
according to former Apple employees. "It was a great board and others  
at Apple didn't recognize that," says Mr. Wozniak. Mr. Draper became  
closer to Mr. Wozniak than to Mr. Jobs, who sometimes felt  
uncomfortable around Mr. Draper, former Apple employees recall.

"John was a little strange and Jobs felt better staying away from  
him," says Mr. Wozniak, who has remained in touch with Mr. Draper  
over the years. Mr. Jobs in an email declines to comment.

Just as the computer revolution was about to begin, Mr. Draper's  
legal problems steered him away from the action. He was sentenced to  
prison for phone fraud in 1976 and again in 1978, and says he was  
attacked during that second stint by an inmate with a baseball bat,  
permanently damaging his back.

The next year -- after his third bust for phone fraud -- he was  
berated for his behavior. "You have to pay for your long-distance  
phone calls," a San Jose U.S. District Court judge told Mr. Draper at  
his sentencing, according to an account in the San Francisco  
Chronicle. "Is that a very difficult moral concept to grasp?"

Mr. Draper's lawyer replied: "His entire reality has to do with the  
technology of computers and telephones. When he gets involved with  
the technology aspect, he loses all sense of morality."

TWO COURT-APPOINTED psychiatrists examined Mr. Draper. One concluded  
he had an "underdeveloped sense of people" and was "psychotic"; the  
other found nothing wrong with him, according to the Chronicle article.

In 1979, while serving a sentence of a year of nights in the Alameda  
County jail -- it was later reduced to a few months -- Mr. Draper  
wrote the EasyWriter word-processing program. At night he wrote code  
in longhand, diligently preparing for the next day when he could  
spend time in the offices of a software company he founded with friends.

Mr. Draper received permission from the sheriff's office to attend a  
computer fair in 1979 in San Francisco, where the program, named  
after the cult film "Easy Rider," was a hit. It became Apple's first  
word-processing program. When IBM launched its first PC, it also  
chose EasyWriter, over competition from other programmers, including  
a young Bill Gates.

Mr. Draper bought a Mercedes and a home in Hawaii. But the company he  
founded, Cap'n Software Inc., earned less than $1 million in revenue  
over a six-year period, according to Mr. Draper and Matthew McIntosh,  
who ran operations. The real winner was Bill Baker, who handled  
EasyWriter's distribution and marketing through his own company.  
Without Mr. Draper's knowledge, Mr. Baker hired his own programmers  
to create EasyWriter II just as Cap'n Software was publishing  
EasyWriter 1.1.

Cap'n Software sued and the matter was settled in court with Mr.  
Baker paying the pair an undisclosed amount. Mr. Baker, now an  
Internet entrepreneur in Corona del Mar, Calif., says his version of  
EasyWriter was for the higher-end corporate market and didn't  
conflict with Mr. Draper's, although he acknowledges the possibility  
for confusion.

Mr. Baker says he helped Mr. Draper get a start in business. "There  
are people who see themselves as victims no matter how much money or  
how many opportunities you give them," says Mr. Baker, who sold his  
distribution company in 1983 for $10 million.

Mr. Draper worked for several years in the late 1980s for Autodesk  
Inc., a San Rafael, Calif., company that makes design software. He  
was laid off along with others when new management arrived. It would  
be his last corporate job.

Through the 1990s, the story was the same. Mr. Draper was qualified  
for any number of openings, but some companies didn't want to hire  
someone with a criminal record while others remained wary of his  
eccentricities. Promising opportunities with Apple and NASA came and  
went, he says.

As Silicon Valley was taking flight again, this time with the  
Internet boom, Mr. Draper turned to the rave scene. He traveled as  
far as Australia and India, where he got by for months at a time  
earning money designing Web sites and writing computer code.

Mr. Draper several years ago developed some Internet-security  
equipment and started a company. Some clients were interested, but  
the company foundered when one of its executives, a fellow raver,  
made off with much of the money from investors, say Mr. Draper and  
another executive, John Johnson.

Mr. Johnson is still trying to make a go of the product, with Mr.  
Draper's help. Mr. Johnson's dilemma is whether to use Mr. Draper's  
name -- or hide it. "Some companies say we don't want any contact  
with that guy," says Mr. Johnson, who says he's in advanced  
discussions with the U.S. Department of Defense about the product.  
The Pentagon declines to comment.

Mr. Katas, who recently hired Mr. Draper to work for his online  
entertainment company, en2go.com, recently arranged to have Mr.  
Draper meet a software executive in Beverly Hills as a possible  
source for more work. Before the meeting, Mr. Katas emailed the  
executive about the "legendary John Draper," listing his achievements.

Mr. Draper, who was included in the email, replied to the executive  
and Mr. Katas that he had no money for parking and doubted that his  
car would make the trip across town.

"John just doesn't understand that if he seems unsuccessful, then  
successful people won't understand how talented he really is," says  
Christine Marie. Ms. Marie does promotional work for Mr. Katas and  
helps Mr. Draper organize his business life, handling invitations to  
speak at conferences and an online TV show he produces that deals  
with Internet security. She also occasionally cleans up his apartment  
and washes his clothes.

Mr. Draper's friends from the EasyWriter days worry that time is  
running out. Work is getting harder to find now that tech companies  
are outsourcing programming work to inexpensive labor markets overseas.

Contemporaries who've gone on to riches and fame say they've tried to  
help Mr. Draper over the years. Mr. Wozniak, who now invests in high- 
tech companies and is involved in computer education in schools,  
recently gave Mr. Draper a new Apple Powerbook computer. He has also  
helped out with Mr. Draper's legal bills.

Mr. Wozniak says Mr. Draper's problem is that his skills lie in  
technology rather in making business deals or starting a company. "He  
didn't come from a business orientation," says Mr. Wozniak.

Mr. Draper's unusual behavior, such as shouting at anyone smoking  
anywhere near him, could wear on fellow workers and employers. "He  
was not a self-starter, or associated with all the companies  
springing up back then," says Mr. Wozniak. "But, actually, John is  
one of the happiest guys I know, no matter what his situation seems."

ON A RECENT MORNING at a Bob's Big Boy restaurant in Burbank, Calif.,  
where he goes when he has enough money, Mr. Draper ordered his usual  
breakfast: eggs and bacon first, to be followed five to seven minutes  
later by grilled pancakes loaded with butter and syrup.

The first course arrived. "The bacon's too greasy, I can't accept  
these," he shouted at the waiter. Mr. Draper sends back his bacon  
about 70% of the time. He says that since he has no opposing teeth,  
the bacon needs to be crisp enough to break off in his mouth. He lost  
most of his teeth from infrequent dental care, which he blames on his  
lack of health insurance.

After breakfast, Mr. Draper returned to his one-room apartment beside  
a four-lane expressway. The apartment was in squalor, with open  
cereal boxes, clothes in trash bags, computers and old newspapers  
strewn about. Mr. Draper left an angry voice message for a client who  
hadn't paid for some programming work. He fretted that without the  
money he would have difficulty covering his electricity bill that month.

"I'm blacklisted, man, a permanent menace to society, I guess," he  
said. "It's too bad because there are some things I think I could  

Write to the Online Journal's editors at [email protected]

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