The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing by David Kahn. Book review by Roger Pineau

codes and code breaking, history of,
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Recent Books:Cryptology


tributes its continued use to a legend of unbreakability nourished by writings of inferior cryptologists, whose books
. . . have a certain air of unreality about them. There is good reason for this. The authors borrowed their knowledge from earlier volumes and puffed it out with their own hypothesizing, which seems never to have been deflated by contact with the bruising actuality of solving cryptograms that they themselves had not made up. The literature of cryptology was all theory and no practice.
"The Era of the Black Chambers" begins with the work of "France's first full-time cryptologist: the great Antoine Rossignol," under Richelieu, Louis XIII and XIV, and Mazarin. Kahn goes on to describe the almost unbelievably efficient Geheime Kabinets-Kanzlei of Vienna in the 18th century, and in England the work of John Wallis for William and Mary and later of Edward Willes and his descendants, who dominated the English field for nearly a century.
Across the Atlantic cryptology was making its way informally into the life of the American colonies. In 1775 the solution of a monoalphabetic substitution cipher showed George Washington that a Boston Tory was sending military information to British commander Gage. James Lovell, of the Continental Congress, may be called the father of American cryptanalysis for his prompt solutions of some intercepted redcoat cryptograms. There was cryptographic involvement in the case of Benedict Arnold and later that of Aaron Burr. Thomas Jefferson invented a "wheel cypher," far and away the most advanced of its day, but he seems to have filed and forgotten it. It was rediscovered among his papers in the Library of Congress in 1922, the year the U.S. Army adopted an almost identical device invented independently.
Kahn stresses how telegraphy made cryptography what it is today, principally by creating a new instrument for war-the signal communications that enabled commanders for the first time in history to exert instantaneous and continuous control over great masses of men spread over large areas. The telegraph broke. the 450-year reign of the nomenclator and brought acceptance of the need for polyalphabetic substitution-the adoption of which was, however, followed shortly by its solution. The role of ciphers in the Civil War and postwar politics is described in a brief chapter called "Crises of the Union."
Of cryptologic events before World War I perhaps the most sensational involvement occurred in the Dreyfus case, which was not finally closed until 1906.   Less than a decade later the war engulfed most of


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Posted: May 08, 2007 08:18 AM
Last Updated: Aug 05, 2011 01:48 PM