Necessity is the mother of invention. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that cryptography began to amass a large public following. According to Singh, it was the invention of the telegraph that made the use of ciphers common in the general public. Since telegraph operators had to read a message to send it, those who wished to send more sensitive or private messages had to figure out ways to maintain maintain their privacy. As Singh puts it, “The telegraph operators had access to every message, and hence the risk that one might bribe an operator in order to gain access to a rival’s communications” (Singh, 61). In order to protect their messages, many people began using simple monoalphabetic ciphers to encrypt their messages before sending them. This was more expensive and more time consuming, but the messages were unintelligible to your average nosy telegraph operator.
The public only became interested in ciphers once they had a reason to; they needed to keep their information private. It is much easier to trust that a letter in a sealed envelope will make it to its intended recipient unread than a message sent through another person, although, as seen with Mary Queen of Scots, this is not always the case. Once ciphers became known to the general public, however, they quickly gained popularity. They were not only useful, but also a fun diversion. Victorian lovers used ciphers to send each other notes in the newspaper, the Times was tricked into printing an unflattering encrypted comment about itself, and Edgar Allen Poe wrote a short story centered around cryptography, The Gold Bug. Ciphers, albeit fairly simplistic ciphers, were suddenly everywhere. This is why today even schoolchildren will come up with monoalphabetic ciphers like those that had once stumped the cryptanalysts of the world. Ciphers have become a deeply engrained part of our culture.
That being said, there is less of an interest in ciphers among the general public of today. While we still romanticize ciphers and codes in movies, books, and other media, we don’t have the practical crypto graphical skills that we once did. Phones and email have removed the middle man, the operator, from the equation; it appears that there is no need to encrypt our messages anymore. While there is still an interest in cryptography, few people ever go beyond the simple mono-alphabetic or shift ciphers from their schoolyard days.