The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: war

Cryptography Changes History

In Chapter 1 of The Code Book, author Simon Signh introduces the reader to the concept of cryptography. In this chapter, Signh gives explanations for what codes and ciphers are, examples of specific codes and ciphers, and many examples in which codes and ciphers were used. Many of the examples Signh uses in which cryptography was used are from long ago and involve political and military leaders and major events in history. This begs the question of why Signh chose these examples to talk about the concealing of messages. It seems that he used them not because they are the only examples that have survived or because cryptography requires exceptional resources. I believe that Signh used these examples because he had to start at the beginning of the history of cryptography and at the same time try to sell cryptography as an interesting concept. 

Signh’s goal in this chapter is to introduce cryptography and its history, so naturally he will start with early examples of cryptography. Yet he doesn’t just pick any early examples; he picks the ones that had the biggest impact on major events. The first example of hidden messages in history Signh uses is Demaratus and the battle between Persia and Greece. In this example, Demartus, a greek living in Persia, took the wax off of a table, wrote a message warning the Greeks of Persia’s plan to attack on the wood, rewaxed the table, and transported this table to the Greeks. The Greeks were able to find and read Demartus’ hidden message, allowing them to prepare for the attack. I believe that Signh used this example not to demonstrate that only a few examples of hidden messages throughout history have survived, nor to demonstrate that hiding messages requires advanced resources (all that was needed was a table), but because this example entices the reader into the subject of cryptography and explains how impactful it can be. Hiding messages is one thing, but hiding messages that change the outcome of entire wars, that is exciting and important. 

Signh’s use of these examples as his first examples in his book casts meaning on what he sees as the purpose of cryptography in today’s world. Sign doesn’t just value code making and code breaking for their own sake. He understands that they are, today and in the future, tools that can change history.

What would you give up to feel safer?

What would you give up to feel safer?

If it were possible, people should give up the existence of the United States. The US has been at war for 214 years out of a possible 235 years since its inception. (Donias, 2011). During this time, the US has been the cause of many atrocities abroad. For example, in more recent years, the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, which have caused the death of many innocent civilians. Effectively, by dissolving the US, we will decrease global terrorism immensely and thus, humanity as a whole will feel safer.

A map of nations when asked the question “Which country is the largest threat to world peace?”.

While the Newseum poses the question in the context of terror, privacy, and security, framing it in this way implies that the US and its residents are unsafe and at risk of dying at any moment from an act of terror. This is false. In reality, the chances of dying due to a terrorist attack are 1 in 45, 808. (Gould, D. M., 2017). The question that should be asked is actually, why do US residents feel so unsafe?

The answer is rooted in the original question. The government has used the media to brainwash its citizens through sensationalized news, leading them to believe that the US is always at risk from an impending attack. As a result of this, the government can influence its citizens to “give up” their rights in order to feel safer. The government can then slowly take away its citizen’s basic rights to things such as privacy and gun control, which will eventually culminate with their citizens being left with no freedom at all. As a result of this, the government will have ultimate power over their citizens, which was their goal from the start.

So, what people give up to feel safer? Nothing.




Gould, D. M. (2017, January 31). How likely are foreign terrorists to kill Americans? The odds may surprise you. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

Danios. (n.d.). America Has Been At War 93% of the Time – 222 Out of 239 Years – Since 1776. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

A map of nations when asked the question “Which country is the largest threat to world peace?”, in 2013 [X-post from /r/europe] [1920×1080] • r/MapPorn. (n.d.). Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

Collaboration Wins the War

Allied cryptanalysts succeeded over German cryptographers largely because of collaboration. It was not just one country working against the Germans, but the entire Allied powers.

The chain of collaboration began with the French: though they didn’t feel the need to pursue cryptanalysis of the Germans, they provided the initial information necessary to do so. After World War I, the French thought that further war was impossible, so when provided with Hans-Thilo Schmidt’s information on the workings of the Enigma machine, they passed them on to Poland. Poland did face an immediate threat, however, in the form of Russia. A Polish cryptanalyst, Rejewski, did much of the work at the front end of the effort to crack Enigma. His methods, when Poland suspected that they would no longer be able to continue covert cryptanalysis, were then passed on to England. Alan Turing and the others at Bletchley Park were able to use this information as a springboard for cracking the evolving Enigma.

“Handshake” by USMC photo by Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald – Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Without collaboration, the decipherment of the Enigma would not have occurred, or at least not in the manner and order of events in which it occurred. The Polish would not have received an Enigma machine if the French had not given it to them, thinking that the Polish could better use the information. The Polish knew that they couldn’t continue cryptanalyzing, and instead of simply shutting down operations, they pass the information on, so that the final goal can be realized. If individual countries had cared more about their own fame than the bigger picture, the war might have ended drastically differently.

Keeping Breakthroughs Secret

One of the main factors that contributed to the success of the Allied cryptanalysts over the German cryptographers was the secrecy that surrounded the Allied code breaking efforts.


Photo Credit: Dr John2005 via Compfight cc

The Allies were able to keep their code breaking efforts shrouded under a curtain of secrecy and so even when a breakthrough occurred in Bletchley Park, the Germans remained unaware that their codes were broken and continued to send message through their “secure” system. For example, the Allies had exploited the fact that the Germans embedded their key twice at the beginning of their messages to avoid error, and used this information to help identify the settings of the Enigma machine. Had the Germans known earlier that their key transportation scheme actually hurt the security of their communication system, they likely would have changed the way they provided the key and made it harder for the cryptanalysts to make breakthroughs in deciphering their messages.

The Allies swore all who worked in Bletchley Park to secrecy for good reason. The secrecy gave the Germans a false sense of security in the strength of their system, buying the Allies more time to decrypt messages as well as experiment with new deciphering techniques in case the Germans changed their system upon learning that it was not as impenetrable as they had believed.

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