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Tales From The Black Chambers
THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF CODES AND CIPHERS HAS PLAYED AN EXCITING AND OFTEN CRUCIAL PART IN AMERICAN HISTORY
April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
Angrily, Seward pointed out that there were eleven hundred groups of digits, that the standard rate to anyone without the promised discount would be ten dollars per word, and that even if this price was doubled, it came to $22,000 instead of $23,000. What about that extra thousand dollars?
The cable chief patiently explained that because his firm had no way of knowing what each digit stood for, it had been decided that each digit, instead of a group, should represent a full word. There were 4,600 digits in the message, and he had been instructed to double the bill because it was in cipher. Therefore the bill really should be $92,000. However, with considerable reluctance his company was charging only one-fourth the figure it should charge and therefore had billed $23,000.
Seward accused the cable chief of dishonesty and unethical business practices and announced flatly that the United States government refused to pay the bill. Apparently it hasn’t been paid to this day.
Still another Secretary of State—and subsequent President—also had difficulties with ciphered messages. At the time of the Revolution there apparently was little knowledge of codes and ciphers in the colonies, and not much enthusiasm for their use. One exception was James Madison, who set up a personal cipher for his private correspondence with Edmund Randolph. It was a fairly simple transposition cipher, in which a key word was written, followed by a table of alphabets. The key word effectively jumbled the characters —too effectively in this case. Madison wrote Randolph: “The key will be the name of a certain black servant boy who used to wait on Mr. James Madison.” The servant’s name was Cupid. Although Madison was fascinated by ciphers, he was careless in enciphering. His correspondence with Randolph was so full of errors, resulting in a meaningless jumble of letters, that Randolph finally wrote in desperation, asking him to repeat his messages in plain English. According to Fletcher Pratt, America’s foremost authority on the history of ciphers, not even modern cryptographers have been able to track down some of Madison’s errors in order to decipher the messages and find out exactly what our fourth President intended to say.
The first official diplomatic code of the nation was prepared in 1789, probably with the help of French experts. It was a fairly elaborate code even by today’s standards, containing sixteen hundred numbers plus other characters. Since no diplomatic disasters were blamed on the code, it apparently was used effectively for about twentyfive years before it fell into disuse simply because, after 1815, the world situation permitted secret messages to be carried safely in diplomatic pouches.
It was an American who touched off a worldwide revival in the use of codes and ciphers. When Samuel F. B. Morse invented the telegraph, he not only made it possible for the ultimate commander, whether in diplomatic or military maneuvers, to retain personal command through instant communication, but he also threw those communications open to the public, since anyone could acquire the skill to intercept and read messages flowing through telegraph wires. Effective codes and ciphers became a necessity.
Edgar Allan Poe was attracted to ciphers when he heard of the abortive attempt of 1821 to return the Bourbons to the French throne, an attempt that depended to a large degree on enciphered correspondence and that failed because the cipher was broken. Poe’s interest flared, and he read everything he could find on codes and ciphers. It was inevitable that they would show up in his work. In 1840, in an article in a Philadelphia weekly, he published his famous claim that there was no such thing as an unbreakable cipher and offered to decipher any messages submitted by readers. Cryptographers note, however, that he hedged his claim. The message had to be in English, it had to involve no more than a simple substitution cipher, and it had to preserve the word divisions of the clear. It is obvious that Poe was a good amateur cryptanalyst, for he solved all of the hundred-odd messages that arrived as a result of his offer. It is also obvious that he was only a selftaught amateur, for the diplomatic and military ciphers of his day were far more difficult than the ciphers his rules permitted. His frequency tables, which he probably developed himself, were quite inaccurate.
However, Poe, more than any other human being, aroused the interest of the world in cryptography and cryptograms. Who, even today, can read “The Gold Bug” without the thrill of intellectual discovery as the message gradually and logically is deciphered in front of his eyes? Other writers, including Jules Verne and Balzac, responded to Poe’s interest and soon were weaving cryptograms into their fiction.
Paralleling the literary interest was the resurgence of interest in professional cryptography, and this probably worked to the advantage of the North during the Civil War. Although the South developed highly effective cavalry raiders who were adept at tapping telegraph wires, it had few trained cryptographers to decipher the abundance of intercepted Union messages. The North, on the other hand, obtained only meager enciphered material from the enemy but had some excellent cryptographers. Perhaps their greatest work was the decipherment of the Cammack letter.