The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Reading Questions for September 30th

In preparation for class on Thursday, September 30th, please read the rest of the second chapter in the Simon Singh book (page 78 and following) and respond to the following questions.

  1. Singh notes that in the latter half of the 19th century, there was “an enormous growth of interest in ciphers among the general public.” (p. 79)  What factors do you think led to this growth?  Would you say there is interest in ciphers among the general public today?
  2. The Beale Ciphers have remained unbroken for over a hundred years.  Given that hundreds if not thousands of professional and amateur cryptanalysts have tried to break them without success, why do you think there are still people who attempt to break them?  What motivates people like that?


Resources from September 21st - Plagiarism, Babbage, Lovelace


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  1. Sam Mallick

    1. In the second half of the 19th century, communication capabilities were growing faster and more accessible to the general public. This led to more messages being sent by everyone and, history tells us, people who send messages desire some way to conceal information from prying eyes. In the past, it had been as simple as sealing a letter but, because the telegraph by nature required people other than the intended recipient to read the message, a new way to hide the message was needed. People turned to codes and ciphers out of necessity, but many who did so developed an interest in cryptography for its own sake because it is interesting and challenging to use (or break). Cryptography is naturally of interest to anyone who sends messages. Today, encryption takes different forms, but an interest persists. One only needs to look at the popularity of spy museums or mystery novels to see that our modern society still takes an interest in cryptography.

    2. People are most likely drawn to the Beale ciphers for a combination of two reasons: the desire to find the treasure and the desire to break the code for the sake of solving the mystery. There is a great possibility that the whole thing is a hoax or scheme of some kind, but there is also a possibility that the treasure is waiting for someone who can break the cipher. Certainly the fact that the ciphers remain unbroken after over a hundred years makes the prospect of breaking them all the more appealing; one who can do so will find treasure, become famous, and find immense satisfaction in solving one of American history's biggest mysteries.

  2. Tanner Strickland

    1. As technology continued to improve with inventions like the telegraph, more of the general public began to find a use for cryptography. This subject, which used to only pertain to nobles, politicians, and armies, now had an everyday application for common people who wanted to send a private message via telegraph. As a result, more people started dabbling in the field of cryptology and interest in the subject spread. Then, as authors like Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began including codes and ciphers in popular novels, even more interest in the topic was stimulated. This interest still remains today, as shown by the success of movies like National Treasure.

    2. People are still trying to crack the Beale Ciphers because there are some who just enjoy a challenge. If you tell some people that something is impossible, they are going to try and prove you wrong just because they do not like to be told that they cannot do something. Another motivation for these people is that if they succeed, they find a treasure worth around twenty million dollars, which is enough for many to live off of for the rest of their lives. Finally, there are those who seek the fame that would come with solving this puzzle that has stumped top cryptanalysts for so many years.

  3. Erin Baldwin

    1. As Singh points out in the text, the cause of the increased interest in cyphers was purely motivated by practicality. The general public found many uses for cryptography, such as encoding telegraphed messages, sending love notes through classified ads, or bypassing exorbitant postal fees with encoded newspapers (mailed for free). Once cryptology became more main stream, due to these common usages, others began to pursue it as a hobby (i.e. those that would try to decode the agony columns.) Today the interest of the public still mainly concerns the practical use of encryption. Most people are interested in having their media devices kept private and similarly private industry would like their technological innovations to stay classified. The difference today, is that the general public no longer needs to encode their own information. Algorithms are now more popular and though those using them are generally unaware of the details, encryption is still relevant and widely used.
    2. The Beale ciphers are still seen as a challenge to cryptanalysts, because they enjoy the puzzle, the thrill of the decipherment. These people are driven by the goal to be the first to discover the mystery of the Beale ciphers and the renown that would come with such an accomplishment. In their eyes, the benefit of this goal outweighs the opportunity costs that are lost in the attempt to decipher the messages.

  4. Rachel Lundberg

    1. Cryptography became something that was not just for spies and governments, but a practical way that the average person could keep their correspondence secret. The advent of the telegram was one factor that prompted people to encode their messages, not with the intent of hiding the contents from someone with crypanalytic experience, but merely as a precaution against prying eyes. And it was not only telegrams that were encypted--many began applying ciphers to their letters and diaries. The public's newfound interest in ciphers was intensified by their apperance in fiction, in stories such as "The Gold Bug" and several of the (super amazing) Sherlock Holmes stories. That interest definitely continues today, as is shown by the large number of books and movies about cryptography, from The Da Vinci Code to new adaptations of the (wonderfully spectacular) Sherlock Holmes stories.

    2. While many Beale enthusiasts may be discouraged by the fact that over a hundred years' worth of cryptanalysts have failed to break the cipher, the thought certainly wouldn't deter all of them. The Vigenere was unbroken for over 300 years, and evidently all it required was someone with a new outlook. The cryptanalysts out there who are still working on the Beale Ciphers are hoping to be they can bring a new perspective, one that will succeed where others have failed. The motivations to undertake this task are many: wealth, obviously, and fame; the excitement of potentially being a part of history unfolding; and a pure enjoyment of cryptanalysis.

  5. Aubrey

    1.) During this time the Vigenére cipher had just been broken. There was now no known secure cipher. People were now exploring the field of cryptography to find a secure way to communicate. Communication was now easier and more prevalent due to the development of the telegraph. Because of this, the average person now needed to learned basic encryption techniques to secure their telegrams. Cryptography was now a skill that concerned everyone. Cryptography was now featured in newspapers, periodicals, and in books, such as Edgar Allen Poe’s “the Gold Bug.” Additionally the publication of the Beale Papers, which claimed to tell the location of a hoard of treasure, piqued the interest of all amateur cryptographers.

    2.) Many people are greedy and would love to have millions of dollars. However, others are interested in the actual ciphertext itself. Many think that they have a unique approach to breaking the cipher and reaping its reward. Additionally, some people enjoy puzzles (i.e. cryptoquip that is printed in newspapers).

  6. derekbruff

    Rachel, you're cracking me up.

  7. Max Gillett

    1. I think this growth in interest can largely be attributed to the shift in purpose that ciphers and encryption experienced during that time period. Whereas ciphers had previously only been used to communicate military messages, due to the invention of the telegraph, they now were considered to be essential for public communication. I think more widespread knowledge of the existence of ciphers and some of their inner-workings also helped increase the public’s fascination with them. I would say that there is considerably less interest in ciphers among the general public today. People have come to assume that their information is encrypted (or “secure”) over the internet (the primary mode of sensitive information today) by checking for certain icons or symbols in their browser. In a society where effective time management is essential, people are more concerned about whether or not their information is secure than how or why an encryption method is so secure. While there is a niche for just about anything, I’d say that the general public rarely has cryptography or ciphers on their mind.

    2. I think the allure that you could be the one to break the ciphers and collect 20 million dollars is strong enough to keep people interested. The chance at striking it rich – not the possibly of breaking a cipher that has eluded some of the smartest minds in history – is what drives people. While there are certainly some people that would still be interested even if no money was out of the question, I think this is a perfect example of how intellectualism in society has shifted. Whereas in Babbage’s time an unbreakable ciphertext would have been the center of attention among intellectuals and scholars based solely on the fact that it was indecipherable, it now takes the promise of riches to have the same effect.

  8. courtneysh

    1. After the Vigenere Cipher was broken and made the news, people began to see that there was a new medium, ergo cryptography, that could give them power. Cryptography was fascinating and peaked the interest of scholars, writers, and lovers alike. It began to appear in literature, as seen with Poe and Sherlock Holmes. Today’s general public has an interest in ciphers, but it’s a more frantic interest spurred out of thoughts of self-defense. Both eras fostered cryptography as a means to privacy though, and the advances inherent to the codes themselves are the cause.

    2. The fact that no one has broken the Beale Ciphers for hundreds of years and many professionals have tried makes the ciphers that much more appealing. It’s a recognized challenge, and the person who eventually breaks it will be revered by the cryptography community; undoubtedly people will be attracted to this kind of glory.

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