Pioneer spirits

A compendium of hacker anecdotes recalls a more innocent age,

"That evening he unpacked his books from London. The box was full of things he had been waiting for impatiently: a new volume of Herbert Spencer, another collection of the prolific Alphonse Daudet's brilliant tales, and a novel called Middlemarch, as to which there had lately been interesting things said in the reviews. He had declined three dinner invitations in favour of this feast . . ."

There's something about receiving a parcel from Amazon that takes me back to 19th-century New York. Breaking the seal on a bulk order of books (I'm a sucker for super-saver delivery) makes me feel like Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, ready to retire from society to my oak-panelled study with only a smoking jacket and a box of cigars for company. So it was last week, when I unpacked The Best of 2600: a Hacker Odyssey (John Wiley & Sons, £21.99).

2600 has been going since 1984. In the intervening 24 years, this quarterly magazine has tracked hacker culture, from the telephonic exploration of latter-day phone phreaks to modern-day wireless internet hacking (or "war-driving"). Founded by Eric Corley, or "Emmanuel Goldstein", as he prefers to be known, the magazine gets its name from the frequency (2600Hz) that could once be used to gain control of AT&T's telephone networks.

Never afraid to court controversy, it is best known for its involvement in a turn-of-the-millennium lawsuit brought by Universal Studios, when the media company tried to prevent the dissemination of code, called DeCSS, that cracked the copy protection software on DVDs. 2600 also spearheaded calls for justice for the hacker Kevin Mitnick, who served five years in prison, four and a half of which took place before his trial, for computer-related crimes.

The Best of 2600, however, is more interesting for what the magazine put out in between these high-profile events. From the story of why the world's first atomic explosion - an early test carried out by the Manhattan Project - was delayed by two hours (the telephone switchboard operator fell asleep) to ways to hack the traffic-light system, the 800-page hardback is packed with tech folklore, rich with irreverent detail that will appeal to anyone who enjoys taking things apart to see how they work.

Goldstein argues that hackers, with their individuality and steadfastness of purpose, embody the American spirit. "We were a diverse bunch of curious folk," he writes in his introduction, "exploring a new universe and sharing our findings with anyone who cared to listen. We were dangerous."

In a way, 2600 charts its own age of innocence, bereft of the irony that Edith Wharton afforded that title. The book is a testament to a culture which thrived before computers and the internet mattered to most of the world. Whether this culture will still be around in another 25 years is anyone's guess.