The art of cryptography has been shown in pop culture many times over the years, from the cryptex device used in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, to the recent depiction of the real-life Enigma machine in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game (starring Benedict Cumberbatch).
So what’s the deal with cryptography, anyway?
Cryptography comes from the Greek kryptós (“secret”) and graphein (“writing”). Very simply put, cryptography is just that – secret writing. Not writing in secret, per se, but writing that employs techniques to ensure that the contents of a communication cannot be understood by a third party or enemy.
Over the centuries, cryptography has evolved and proven immensely useful in protecting crucial information in times of need. Let’s learn a little more about cryptography’s practical uses throughout history.
A Brief History of Cryptography
Cryptography has been in use for thousands of years; in fact, the earliest known instance dates back to around 1900 BC, in hieroglyphs found in Egypt. There have also been some clay tablets found dating back to 1500 BC Mesopotamia thought to contain the trade secrets of a potter.
Of course, the ancient Greeks knew of and practiced cryptography in their heyday. Specifically, the Greeks used transposition cipher, wherein plain text is reordered to make it illegible using a mathematical function, then the inverse function is applied to the cipher in order to decode.
The Caesar cipher is an early cipher that the one and only Julius Caesar used to communicate with his trusted generals. This cipher is relatively easy to understand – letters of the alphabet are shifted down a certain number of letters to form new words. For example, if every letter is shifted 3, then “A” would become “D.” To decrypt the cipher, Caesar’s generals would simply need to know how many positions to shift each letter.
In Renaissance Italy, “advanced ciphers” were invented and spread due to political rivalries and religious strife. Although these ciphers were often decrypted, the idea of “advance ciphers” became the basis of the aforementioned cryptex in The Da Vinci Code.
As previously mentioned, the Enigma machine was an important invention in the history of cryptography. The Enigma was an electro-mechanical cipher machine used in WWII by the Nazis to relay important internal intelligence. Determined to break the Enigma in order to stop German advancement, the British employed several top cryptographers (including Alan Turing, inventor of the Turing Machine) who eventually broke the code. It is widely believed that the conquering of the Enigma helped the Allies win WWII.
Today, computers use algorithms to encrypt and decrypt information sent across the information superhighway. The demand for encryption arose out of an increased need for information security, especially as it pertains to sensitive or confidential materials which laypeople or even amateur hackers could get their hands on.
A Cryptography Mystery
In 1912, a book dealer named Wilfred Voynich purchased a hand-written codex in the hope that it held some monetary value. The book, which became known as The Voynich Manuscript, is written in an unknown language and has been dated back to about the 15th century. The Voynich Manuscript is viewed as one of the biggest mysteries in the cryptography world – several cryptographers have tried and failed to decipher the text. It is thought (based on the illustrations in the book) to perhaps be a manual on herbs and their medicinal uses, but this has yet to be verified. There are several theories pertaining to the coding of the book, but the contents and exact method of encryption remain a mystery to this day.
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