first encrypted cable (1866),


first encrypted cable (1866),
Previous Next

Given the "oppressive and extortionate"' cost of the tariff and faced with an immense Civil War debt, Seward told Hunt that the State Department would lose public confidence if it incurred the great expense of telegraphic communication under the existing tariff. Moreover, Seward recognized that a code or cipher would have to be employed for telegraphic communication in order to maintain confidentiality. Using the cipher code for a cable, Seward said, "increased the number of words about five times, and the expense of transmissions 10 times."6
Austria, the British abolished the secret foreign-letter monitoring branch of the Post Office along with the deciphering office.
Seward's decision to send the encrypted message was prompted by an alarming dispatch from Bigelow earlier in November about continuing French designs on Mexico. Seward believed the message would be in accord with the trial cost agreement he thought he had reached with Wilson Hunt in August.8 Expecting that Bigelow would read the message in its entirety to the Emperor, Seward left no word out for reasons of economy.
After some discussion, in which both parties apparently misunderstood the other's position, Hunt came away believing that he would soon receive a written message from Seward requesting lower rates. Seward, in turn, believed he could send a trial
Seward's original plain-text message of 780 words, when encoded, grew to 1,237 number groups, with an additional 88 code symbols spelled out. Moreover, there were more than 35 transmission errors and some phrases were mistakenly repeated twice. The dispatch, now 3,722 words long,9 took six hours to transmit. This historic document became the first encoded American diplomatic dispatch to use the new Atlantic cable.
message as an experiment for lowering rates, with Seward determining what the proper pay would be for the trial message. The seeds of confusion grew when Seward failed to send the written communication to the company's proprietors.
Several months later the company, bowing to public pressure, lowered its rates. Wilson Hunt then sent Seward a listing of the new prices. Ten days after the new tariff went into effect on I November 1866, Seward sent in plain text the first State Department cable via the Western Union Telegraph Company. It was a brief dispatch to John Bigelow in France telling him that his successor was embarking later that month.7 Shortly after sending the plain-text message, Seward decided he needed to send a coded dispatch to Bigelow containing a warning, to be delivered to Emperor Napoleon III, about France's interventionist activities in Mexico.
The State Department clerk who prepared the cable, John H. Haswell, later recalled that the cablegram "...was an important one addressed to our minister at Paris. It caused the French to leave Mexico. I was directed by the Secretary to send it in cipher, using the Department's code which had been in vogue since colonial times but seldom used." Despite the age of the code, Haswell wrote that "it was a good one, but entirely unsuited for telegraphic communication. Its cumbersome character, and what was of even more importance, the very great expense entailed by its use impressed me, and turned my attention to an arrangement for cipher communication by telegraph."10
A Historic Document
Seward believed it was necessary to send an encoded message to Bigelow because his highly confidential message would pass through the hands of American and foreign telegraphers. But encoded American diplomatic dispatches had become a distinct rarity in the years after 1848. The decline of encrypted diplomatic communications mirrored a new liberal tradition sweeping Great Britain. In support of oppressed Polish leaders and others persecuted by Russia or A Big Bill
And indeed the cable was expensive, especially in comparison with previous costs. Earlier State Department monthly bills for using domestic telegraph lines were quite modest. In September, for example, the bill-with an 8-percent discount--came


Previous Next


Posted: May 08, 2007 08:53 AM
Last Updated: Aug 03, 2011 02:07 PM