America's First Encrypted Cable


first encrypted cable (1866),

Seward's other folly
America's First Encrypted Cable
Ralph E. Weber
On the early morning of 26 November 1866, before American Minister to France John Bigelow was out of bed, a secret encrypted cable from Secretary of State William Seward began arriving in the Paris telegraph office. The dispatch's last installment was completed late the following afternoon. News and rumors about the lengthy encoded telegram spread rapidly through the French governmental departments and the diplomatic corps, but Bigelow maintained a determined silence. The first streamer from New York to arrive in France after the dispatch was written brought a reprint of the confidential cable in the pages of the New York Herald newspaper! concluded by warning Seward that the Department should take steps to "clothe its communications with that privacy without which, oftentimes, they would become valueless."1
Seward, replying to Bigelow's dispatch, dismissed the conjecture that traitors took copies of the code. And he added an astonishing statement: the Department code, in service for at least half a century, is believed to be the "most inscrutable ever invented." Because he held this opinion, Seward wrote that he rejected the offer of five or six new ciphers each year.
This strange episode in American foreign relations commenced a fascinating chapter in American cryptology history. Moreover, the event shaped American State Department code books for the next two generations and provoked a costly lawsuit against the US Government.
Costly Communications
Seward had first discussed the new transatlantic cable with the parent company, the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, at a celebration in New York on 29 August 1866 honoring President Andrew Johnson. At the conclusion of the evening's festivities, one of the directors of the company, Mr. Wilson G. Hunt, asked Seward why the federal government did not use the new Atlantic cable. It was a question that would eventually lead to a $32,000 claim against the State Department. Seward told Hunt that the tariff was too costly and that "the Government of the United States was not rich enough to use the telegraph."2
Security Concerns
In August 1866, Bigelow had written to Seward praising the inauguration of the Atlantic cable, which he termed the "umbilical cord with which the old world is reunited to its transatlantic offspring." Bigelow recognized the new challenges for communications security that accompanied the new Atlantic cable, completed on 28 July 1866. He advised Seward to develop a new cipher for the exclusive use of the State Department so that Seward could communicate secretly with his diplomatic officers. Even better, he suggested a different cipher for each of the legations overseas.
In fact, the provisional tariff rates were very expensive: cable charges between America and Great Britain were $100 or 20 pounds sterling for messages of 20 words or less, including address, date and signature. Every additional word, not exceeding five letters, cost 20 shillings per word. Code or cipher messages charged double.3 And all messages had to be paid in gold before transmission.4
Bigelow was concerned that the State Department code-the Monroe Code-was no longer secret, for he believed copies of it were taken from the State Department archives by the "traitors to the government" working in an earlier administration. Bigelow




Posted: May 08, 2007 08:53 AM
Last Updated: Aug 03, 2011 02:06 PM