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7 Things You Didn’t Know about Code-breaking Before Computers

Code-breaking was not always about computers.


Anyone that has watched any crime show or movie, knows that in this day and age, computer hacking, encryption, decryption and what-not is all a big part of catching the bad guys. Modern technology has allowed us to do all sorts of things from using Google Maps, ordering food, and playing games on our phones to pinpointing locations of devices, breaking security systems, and general hacking for the fun of it. Of course, the first computers were not created until the 19th century, so what did people use to decipher messages and intercept codes before? Behold the art of deciphering codes, or in other words, finding patterns through trial and error and hoping something comes of it.

1) Arabic Origins

Starting at the beginning of cryptography is the best way to introduce the significance of code breaking. Originating among the Muslims, an Arab mathematician known as Al-Kindi wrote a book on cryptography describing cryptanalytic techniques, cipher classification, Arabic phonetics, syntax, and significantly, the descriptions of frequency analysis, which was used to break monoalphabetic substitution ciphers. There are a lot of big and not so useful words in there, but the most important thing to know is that a substitution cipher is literally replacing letters, numbers, punctuation or even spaces, with another letter, or random symbol. Frequency analysis is used by thinking logically about which letters (or symbols) appear the most in a text. For example, we know that the letter “E” is a common vowel used in the English language, and we know that the letters “A” and “I” can be used on their own. With this knowledge, you can slowly decipher a text by substituting letters and establishing patterns.

2) The Revelations of Prophet Muhammad

Having spent a lot of time in a cave on Mount Hira, Prophet Muhammad reported that he was visited by Archangel Gabriel, where he claimed to have received his first revelation from God. All the revelations were recorded by scribes but were fragmented and it was up to the caliphs of Islam to decipher and put them together into a single text. Behold the Koran. Each revelation represented a chapter in the Koran and if these fragmented texts were not deciphered, Islam would not be what it is today.

3) The Great Cipher

Decoding The Great Cipher took over 200 years to break. During 1629, its complexity baffled anyone not fluent in its ways. Instead of using the classic substitution method mentioned above, there were all kinds of ridiculous traps used to puzzle the interpreter. There were numbers which didn’t just substitute for other letters, they substituted for syllables and commands, making it even more impressive when it was cracked. Louis XIV used this cipher to communicate with his minister of war, as well as hide his secrets which were probably affairs with his generals, where his wigs were, and some kind of dodgy dealing. Etienne Bazeries broke this cipher, over a period of three years, in 1893. While the ability to crack this code would be fairly easy now with all of the modern technology, at the time, it was known an unbreakable cipher, making his achievement all the more impressive.

4) The Man in the Iron Mask

This poor fellow has the privilege of no one knowing who he actually was. His nickname comes from the fact that he was forced to wear a mask, with his identity shrouded in mystery. Till this day, no one knows why he was arrested or who he was. There have been suggestions as to his identity, but they were all rebuffed due to lapses in the timeline. The Great Cipher being decoded did shed some light on The Man in the Iron Mask, but not enough to know who he was or why he was moved from prison to prison and kept in a mask. He is like Jack the Ripper, without the killing of prostitutes and terrorising London part. 

5) The Cipher of Mary Queen of Scots

So, if you haven’t heard, the monarchy has seen its fair share of nut jobs (Henry VIII anyone?). With a very clever plot to kill the queen and take over the English throne, Mary Queen of Scots nearly became a famous usurper, instead she was seen as an old bitter woman with arthritis and a hatred of her cousin. Having created a system of communicating with her followers, it was difficult for England’s chief codebreaker, Thomas Phelippes to decipher her codes. Eventually, he did it and because of this, the plan to execute Mary and her co-conspirators went forward, and Queen Elizabeth maintained her throne.

Without the code being deciphered, Mary would have had a chance of surviving and Queen Elizabeth may have been assassinated. Although let’s be honest, the monarchy would have found a way to bring up false charges against Mary or assassinate her. It’s not that inconceivable surely? 

6) Room 40

The Admiralty’s Room 40 played a significant part in the first World War. Detecting German fleets in the North Sea helped British Navy vessels intercept them, leading to the battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland. However, the biggest success came when the Zimmermann Telegram was intercepted. The Zimmermann Telegram was a communication sent by the Germans to forge an alliance with Mexico telling them that they would recover Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Not only did this interception prevent Mexico from joining the war (they became neutral), it meant that the Americans joined the war against the Germans, making it a significant event that influenced the war. This marked the point where the Americans believed that Britain would be speaking German if it wasn’t for them.

7) The Enigma Code

The story of Alan Turing, the man who deciphered the Enigma Code, is a famous one from World War II. With Room 40, the Americans and the French found it increasingly difficult to break German ciphers, gathering intelligence on German communication became tough and the baffling messages that were intercepted became an enigma, hence the name. Despite valiant efforts from code breakers across Europe, with Polish mathematicians working out how to read the Enigma messages, the Germans increased their security by changing the cipher daily, making the breaking of the code even more challenging. Enter Alan Turing. Alongside Gordon Welchman, Turing invented a machine known as the Bombe, which reduced the work of codebreakers and, significantly, allowed German Air Force signals to be read in the mid 1940’s. He also decrypted complex communications within the German Navy which went a long way in winning World War II or at least shortening it significantly.

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