Course Handout - Codes and Ciphers in History, Part 1 - To 1852

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First published online 08:05 GMT 28th January 2003, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [HT.1 - transfer of copyright] dated 18:00 14th January 2010

Although this paper is reasonably self-contained, it is best read as the first part of a three-part subordinate file to our six-part review of how successfully the psychological study of biological short-term memory (STM) has incorporated the full range of concepts and metaphors available to it from the computing industry. To go directly to the superordinate content file, click here, to go to the superordinate menu file, click here, and to see the author's homepage, click here.

Definitions: Singh (1999) explains that a code involves replacing sensitive words or phrases with different words, phrases, numbers, or symbols, whilst a cipher involves making letter-for-letter substitutions, according to a pre-set rule. Thus a spy might be given the codename "Intrepid", which could be ciphered as JOUSFQJE. Needless to say, it is possible (a) to decipher the cipher and still not be able to decode the code, and (b) to cipher the same codename an infinite number of different ways. "Cryptology" is the overarching science of codes and ciphers, "cryptography" is the specific science of encryption, that is to say, encoding and enciphering, and "cryptanalysis" is the specific science of hostile decryption, that is to say, unwanted decoding and deciphering.


Early Codes and Ciphers 

"When you attack, your opponent should not know what to defend, for when he does not know what to defend, he must defend thinly, to your advantage; and when you defend, your opponent should not know what to attack." (Loosely from Sun Tsu, "The Art of War".)

"A quick peek is worth two finesses." (Unwritten rule of (very) coarse contract bridge.)

The use of codes and ciphers to maintain personal, amatory, political, or military secrecy goes back to the beginnings of history, and the overriding lesson is that no written form of communication will ever be totally secure. Letters can be stolen from (or by) their carrier, or - and the practical implications of this are actually far worse - their contents scanned by a "black chamber", an interception point where mailings are systematically opened, copied, and resealed for onward transmission [for a fuller history of black chambers, click here].

It was to prevent this sort of leakage of information that the Egyptians and the Greeks, etc., developed various forms of secret writing [for details of the Spartan scytale, click here], and the Romans experimented with both invisible ink and the "substitution cipher". This latter technique was made famous by none less than Julius Caesar himself. The "Caesar shift" is a ciphering method fit for little more than the school playground, and involves replacing each plaintext letter with the letter a known number of places further up the alphabet.

Now the problem with Caesar shift ciphers is that not all letters of the alphabet occur with equal frequency. The commonest letters in written English are E, T, and A, so if your ciphertext is suddenly full of Js, Ys, and Fs, you can start to make some easy guesses at the shift key used. One of the first steps in practical decryption is accordingly to build up a letter frequency profile of the ciphertext. To be a cryptanalyst, in other words, you need to be methodical, and the first "scientific" approaches to cryptology emerged during the ninth century Muslim caliphates. Encryption and decryption techniques were common practice in the Middle Eastern civil services, and Singh (1999) credits a certain Abu Al Kindi as the first cryptanalyst worthy of the name.

The Arabian techniques eventually spread westwards into Europe, and monks such as Roger Bacon were soon using a whole variety of methods to protect the Church's internal deliberations. Modern international diplomacy was born in Venice in the thirteenth century (Deacon, 1980), but its communication techniques were never totally secure, and it only takes a few powerful people to have their favourite methods of cryptography broken, for the call to go out for better techniques and a more reliable class of messenger. One improved technique was devised by the Florentine architect Leon Alberti (1404-1472) in around 1466. This made use of two cipher alphabets simultaneously, so that high frequency cipherings from one balanced with low frequency cipherings from the other. Properly handled, the resulting ciphertexts were suddenly much less vulnerable to frequency analysis. As for the quality and reliability of the messengers themselves, the first military postal service in Britain was established as the "Royal Post" in 1482 (Cuerden and Fenwick, 2002 online), and their courier service gradually evolved into the civilian Post Office.

Alberti also invented the "cipher disk" [picture] as a way of semi-automating a rotary version of the Caesar shift. This is how Alberti described his invention:

"I make two circles out of copper plates. One, the larger, is called stationary, the smaller is called movable. The diameter of the stationary plate is one-ninth greater than that of the movable plate. I divide the circumference of each circle into 24 equal parts [called] cells. In the various cells of the larger circle I write the capital letters, one at a time in red, in the usual order of the letters [whilst those around the movable circle are] not in regular order like the stationary characters, but scattered at random. [I then] place the smaller circle upon the larger so that a needle driven through the centres of both may serve as the axis of both and the movable plate may be revolved around it." (Alberti, 1470, cited in Kahn, 1996, pp127-128.)

Kahn attaches great historical significance to what Alberti did next, because at a single stroke it overcame the Caesar shift's weakness. This is how Alberti explained himself:

"After writing three or four words, I shall change the position of the index in our formula by turning the circle, so that the index k may be, say, under D [] and all the other stationary letters [] will receive new meanings." (Alberti, 1470, cited in Kahn, 1996, pp128-129.)

This little trick turned the cipher disk into a "polyalphabetic substitution cipher", with as many separate alphabets at its disposal as there are radial positions on the disk. Another advantage of the cipher disk is that it was easy to operate, and therefore attractive to organisations such as diplomatic services, monastic orders, and the military, where the menial task of ciphering and deciphering tended even then to be left to secretaries and juniors rather than being done personally by principals. Alberti's cipher disk lived on to become the basis of the "cipher cylinder" (see Part 3 of this historical review). Cryptoworks from this general period include the monk Johannes Trithemius's "Steganographia" (ca. 1500).

Tudor Cryptology

BACKGROUND: After the fall of the Roman Empire, a number of separate kingdoms - England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales - emerged within the British Isles. These remained politically separate until England and Wales merged by Act of Union in 1536, to form the first "United Kingdom". Scotland joined the union in 1707, and Ireland in 1801. Strictly speaking, the modern Welsh have prior claim to the term "British" since they were the ethnic "Ancient Britons", and because the word derives from the ancient Celtic name for the British Isles, namely "Prydain". Throughout this paper we use the terms "Britain" and "British" to refer to the members of the UK at the time in question.

The Tudor Age of British history began with the accession to the throne of Henry VII in 1485. The throne had already been bitterly fought over for political reasons during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), but these disputes reached new heights of intensity when the catholic-protestant religious schism came along as well. The Protestant Reformation, the gradual rejection of papal authority across north-western Europe, had its historical roots in the 14th century with churchmen such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, and began in earnest with Martin Luther in Saxony in 1517. The struggle was then taken up by the Calvinists in Switzerland, the Huguenots in France, John Knox's presbyterians in Scotland, and the Puritans in England (the movement which gave rise to the Pilgrim Fathers). As a result, relations between Britain and catholic Europe were often less than cordial, and written communication required some form of cryptological protection. Thus it was, for example, that Cardinal Wolsey (ca. 1471-1530), chaplain to Henry VII until his death in 1509 and thereafter long-time favourite of his son Henry VIII, used a form of shorthand cipher when at Venice in 1524.

Venice was a particular problem, in fact, because several centuries of remorseless mercantile and military adventurism had raised the status of the Venetian city-state within the Roman Catholic world to that of empire-in-miniature, and in controlling the trade routes Venice also controlled the world's mail services. The city was one big black chamber. Phau (1994/2003 Online) refers to the deliberate and cynical exercise of state power which brought the Venetians this success as "The Methodology of Evil". Here is how he describes "the Venetian method":

"Above all, the evil that was Venice was seen by her contemporaries in her manipulation of events and individuals through conspiracy and deceit: a kind of modern pioneer in religious warfare, espionage, and diplomatic warfare. [] The character of Iago in [Shakespeare's Othello] is perhaps the best case-study of the Venetian method. Intimate adviser, apparent friend, and comforter to Othello - a Moorish general retained to defend Venice - Iago [plays] upon the Moor's latent jealousies until Othello is driven to madness. [] It is an open question whether Shakespeare intended to evoke in the character of Othello the character of Henry VIII [but] whether he intended it or not, the resemblance between the [two] is there."

A major coalition of nations - the League of Cambrai - had rounded on Venice in 1508, and had done much to reduce her influence, but the Venetian Grand Council still ruled "with the help of an elaborate network of agents and informers" (Phau, op.cit.). Phau continues that there are a million and a half ambassadorial despatches in the Venetian state archives, "with many documents in cipher and probably in invisible ink, which Venice was first to patent", and a selection of Henry's correspondence from this period, both en clair and ciphered, is available in Tim Coates' "The Letters of Henry VIII, 1526-1529" (Coates, 2001).

The Venetian experience was excellent training for Wolsey's secretary, the lawyer Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), standing him in good stead when he started to pursue his own career in Henry's court after Wolsey's death in 1530. He rose rapidly through the ranks of Henry's advisors, soon acquiring responsibility for the king's counterespionage service, and raising it to Venetian levels of ruthless efficiency: "No knavery," reported one of his agents in 1535, "can be hid from us" (Richard Layton, Archdeacon of Buckingham, cited in Deacon, 1980, p18). He was also continuing the Venetian tradition in 1536, when he masterminded the intrigues which led to the execution of Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, on hastily contrived charges of incest and witchcraft [fuller story].

The Anne Boleyn affair earned Cromwell no little favour at court, because Henry's next wife, Jane Seymour (ca. 1504-1537), whom he married the day after Anne's execution, soon bore him his long-sought-after legitimate male heir, Edward. Sadly, Jane died a few hours after giving birth, and it was when Cromwell set about finding Henry his fourth wife that he started to make mistakes. Cromwell decided that the protestant Anne of Cleves was the girl to go for, and after prolonged negotiations she arrived in Britain in December 1539. The standard story then has it that she was so "utterly destitute both of beauty and grace" (Hume, 1786, pII:190) that Henry could not stomach consummating the union. Cromwell did not get the blame straight away, and was elevated to the peerage in April 1540 as the Earl of Essex. His celebrating did not last long, however, for the rumour suddenly spread that he had deliberately concealed Anne's physical failings from the king during the royal courtship, whereupon Henry's temper snapped and Cromwell was immediately confined to the Tower of London, where he was beheaded 28th July 1540.

Henry died in 1547, and was succeeded by the boy-king Edward VI, still only nine years old, and as was standard practice in such circumstances a succession of "Protectors of the Realm" were appointed to exercise power on his behalf until he came of age. Unfortunately, Edward was a sickly child and when he died in 1553 the catholic Mary Tudor (1516-1558), Henry's daughter by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, took his place. She, too, died young (but not before earning the nickname "Bloody Mary" for some anti-protestant excesses), but with her death came stability as her half-sister Elizabeth (1533-1603) began a reign that would span 45 years. Cryptoworks from this general period include Giambattista della Porta's "De Furtivis Literarum Notis" (1563).

Elizabeth's smooth accession to the throne was in certain key respects greatly assisted by the lawyer William Cecil (1520-1598), and his subsequent advancement under Elizabeth was accordingly rapid. He took over the queen's espionage service in 1558 when he was made Secretary of State, was elevated to the peerage as Lord Burleigh in 1571, and was one of the prime movers for the prosecution in the case of Mary, Queen of Scots. The central problem here was that the Roman Catholic church had traditionally refused to recognise divorce, and so regarded Henry VIII's first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) as sacrosanct. Elizabeth, daughter from his second marriage (to Anne Boleyn) was therefore not truly legitimate, and the true monarch in catholic eyes was actually a slightly more distant relative, Mary Stuart (1542-1586), who had been Queen of Scotland since before her first birthday. Mary had spent her early life at the court of King Henry II of France, marrying his son Francis in 1558, and becoming Queen of France when the old man died in 1559. Yet in 1558, Mary was guilty of no more than considering her own claim to the vacant English throne, and in the end no challenge was made. Nevertheless, Elizabeth had been made sensitive to her rival's existence, and when Mary moved from France back to Scotland in 1561 she began to sense a more direct threat. She therefore arranged to have Mary routinely spied upon.

Mary's time in Scotland was eventful enough [fuller story] to force her in 1568 to seek refuge in northern England, but, fearful of her intentions, Elizabeth took this opportunity to have her placed under house arrest. And there she stayed, an embarrassment and irritation to the throne, until evidence of her involvement in a treasonous plot emerged in October 1586. Here is how Hume (1786, pII:486) described what happened next:

"Her two secretaries [] were immediately arrested; all her papers were seized, and sent up to the council; above sixty different keys to cyphers were discovered; there were also found many letters from persons beyond the sea, and several too from English noblemen, containing expressions of respect and attachment."

It soon transpired that Mary had been conducting a prolonged exchange of messages with a co-conspirator named Anthony Babington, ciphering them, and then hiding them in the hollowed out bungs of barrels going in and out of her kitchens. Now in 1573 Burleigh had passed the secret service job on to Sir Francis Walsingham (ca. 1530-1590), and the intervening years had been cryptologically highly active. The Babington correspondence was discovered by a black chamber set up by Walsingham, and their substitution cipher [picture] broken by his clerk Thomas Philips (sometimes Phelippes) using the method of frequency analysis. Hume (1786, pII:467) describes Walsingham's intelligence techniques as follows:

"..... many arts, which had been blameable in a more peaceful government, were employed in detecting conspiracies, and even discovering the secret inclinations of men. Counterfeit letters were written in the name of the Queen of Scots, or of the English exiles, and privately conveyed to the houses of the catholics; spies were hired to observe the actions and discourse of suspected persons; informers were countenanced; [and] all the subjects, particularly the catholics, kept in the utmost anxiety and inquietude."

It was Walsingham again, who in 1587 obtained warnings that Philip II of Spain was preparing for an invasion of Britain. Using his contact network to subvert Philip's bankers, he managed to delay that invasion for a year, and then, in the opening months of 1588, he proceeded to neutralise the many Spanish spies in Britain, thus rendering Philip's approaching Armada effectively blind (McKee, 1963).

ASIDE: The next time a British intelligence blackout was as absolute was not until 1944, in the run-up to the D-Day landings. Nor was Britain alone in her paranoia, for the rest of Europe was equally jumpy. The catholic states lived in constant fear of the Venetian informers, or the Borgias' Inquisitors, or the Jesuits, whilst the first Tsar (Ivan "the Terrible") had just established Russia's first secret police force, the Oprichnina (Casey, 2002 online). The Oprichnina were not the first to combine intelligence gathering with a murderous hands-on enforcement policy, but they were perhaps the most stylish, sporting an all black livery and cryptic logo. Not surprisingly, it was an age in which the ancient secret societies (Cabbalists, Knights Templar, etc.) were reborn, and new ones (Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and the Italian Carbonari) spawned.

Mary Stuart was eventually executed in 1587, just fractionally too late to benefit from one of the most secure encryption systems yet, namely the Vigenère Square. This technique was developed in the mid-16th century by Blaise de Vigenère (1523-1596), a French diplomat, and published in "A Treatise on Ciphers" (1586). The method requires that a fully exhaustive vertical array of Caesar shift alphabets is drawn up, each line of which is one place further offset than the one above it [details]. Regardless of the particular national alphabet being considered, this table will always be as deep as it is wide, and the secret is to use only a key-controlled subset of it: you simply have to use different subsets of lines (those beginning K-I-N-G, say) on different occasions, according to prior agreement between sender and receiver, and each line encrypts a different subset of the plaintext (every fourth letter, say). So proud was Vigenère of his invention, that he confidently dubbed it "le chiffre indechiffrable"; believing that it could not (to use the modern technical term) be "broken back" (in the fullness of time, it was broken, of course - by the same Charles Babbage who first popularised the notion of automated computing). To play with your own Vigenère Square online, click here.

Early Stuart Cryptology

Elizabeth I remained childless, and so her death in 1603 brought an end to the Tudor lineage. This immediately reopened all the old squabbles, and the entire seventeenth century was a period of no little unhappiness for the British crown; a period of rebellions, civil war, and invasions. Not surprisingly, cryptological knowledge remained at a premium, and relevant works from this general period include Francis Bacon's "The Advancement of Learning" (1623) and John Wilkins's "Mercury: Or the Secret and Swift Messenger" (1641).

To start with, the crown passed to James I (I of England, VI of Scotland; 1566-1625), son of the unfortunate Mary Stuart ..... 

ASIDE: As already noted, Scotland did not join the United Kingdom until 1707. Note how this confuses the numbering of common monarchs.

..... and one of the most important figures in the ensuing generation was Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639). Wotton had trained as secretary to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and had to spend some years abroad in self-imposed disgrace after the latter had intrigued himself to the block in 1600. He took a job in Italy working for the Duke of Florence, and in 1602 his luck changed for the better when the Duke intercepted letters plotting against the life of James VI. Wotton was given the task of carrying a warning to Scotland [fuller story] and was thus an instant court favourite when James VI inherited the throne of England the following year. His reward was to be made British ambassador to Venice from 1603, and in that role he inherited a spying agency developed in the 1590s by the same Thomas Philips who had cracked the Babington cipher (Deacon, 1980) (he also coined the famous definition of an ambassador as being "an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country"). Wotton received a special allowance to cover the bribes and inducements needed for effective secret service work (funding which he supplemented by selling on spare secrets to other governments). This is how Deacon (op. cit., p55) describes his work:

"He gave the Venetian Government intelligence about the Jesuits' activities at the same time that he passed it on to James I. He set up agents in Rome, Turin, and Milan as well as in Venice and robbed the posts and stole the Jesuits' correspondence. His organisation was superb, for he made a study of the seals used by the Jesuits on their mails [and] once he had intercepted the packets, read the contents and had them copied, he allowed the mails to go to the addresses intended."

However, on occasions he must have wondered why he was bothering, because the king seems to have been by nature an inveterate gossip, and freely shared his thoughts with the Spanish Ambassador in London (Deacon, op. cit.). Indeed, James was once described as "the wisest fool in Christendom, by reason of his strange blend of genuine far-sighted wisdom and naivete.

The early Stuarts were not a match for the French either, for France's Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) was running a much tighter ship, and it is to France that we have to turn for the next major cryptological milestone. Kahn (1996) begins this story at the Siege of Réalmont in 1628, where a force of Huguenot rebels had been besieged by an army led by Henry II of Bourbon. As supplies within the town began to run down, the defenders sent out a ciphered message for help. The courier was duly intercepted, but the cipher initially defied Henry's resident cryptanalysts. Henry then learned of a young local named Antoine Rossignol, with something of a reputation in this area. Rossignol was duly summoned, and broke the code at once, revealing that the defenders were far less well supplied than the ferocity of their initial defence had indicated. Henry simply returned their message to them, together with a copy of the decryption, and the town surrendered without further ado.

The Réalmont affair made Rossignol famous overnight, and over the next few years he was of repeated service to Richelieu against other Huguenot stronholds. He also improved the nomenclators used by the French court for their own despatches. His son Bonaventure was introduced to the profession by his father, and together they developed the Great Cipher (aka "Le Grand Chiffre de Louis XIV" or "le chiffre indechiffrable") (see next section but one).

English Civil War (1642-1651) Cryptology

The English Civil War began in 1642, following more than a decade of deteriorating relations between the monarchy, now in the person of King Charles I (1600-1649), and parliament. The forces loyal to Charles - the "Royalists" (colloquially, "Cavaliers") - attracted monarchists at heart, from backgrounds which were typically rural, upper class, catholic, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh. The armies loyal to parliament - the "Parliamentarians" (colloquially, "Roundheads") - attracted less flamboyant stock, from backgrounds which were typically puritan protestant, urban, and English. The cryptology, however, did not take sides, and there was widespread use of ciphers and codes as the fighting ebbed and flowed across Britain. Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentarians chose well when they selected John Thurloe (1616-1668), an Essex lawyer, as their spymaster. Thurlow was made Postmaster General, and set up "the most effective espionage network since the days of Francis Walsingham" (source), making him by one report the second most powerful man in Britain. One branch of his strategy was for the Parliamentarians to create their own black chamber - called the "Secret Office" - within the Post Office, and another was to get the best available cryptanalyst on their side, in the person of John Wallis (1616-1703), the greatest English mathematician before Newton (Kahn, 1996, p166) (they approached Wallis rather than the rival cryptologist John Wilkins, Cromwell's own brother-in-law, because the latter harboured some Royalist sympathies). Wallis acted as chief cryptanalyst for Cromwell from 1643, and so good was he at the job, that when Charles II ascended the throne at the end of the interregnum, he kept him in it!

Royalist cryptography did at least secure the escape of Sir John Trevanion from a Roundhead death row in Colchester Castle, Essex. Despite being under constant guard, and with all his correspondence being carefully scrutinised, friends on the outside managed to get a message through to him. They sent him an apparently innocuous letter, which his jailers could find no immediate fault with, yet while at prayer that evening Sir John disappeared into thin air from inside the chapel. Only later was it discovered that the letter had in fact contained a message within a message. The visible message read as follows:

"Worthie Sir John, Hope, that is the beste comfort of the afflicted, cannot much, I fear me, help you now. That I would saye to you, is this only: if ever I may be able to [etcetera]" (Deacon, 1980, pp59-60.)

The secret was that the third character after each punctuation mark conveyed the following far more pressing message: "Panel at east end of chapel slides"! This is an instance of "steganography" (Greek = "hidden writing"), the science of invisible inks and general message concealment. Cryptoworks from this general period include John Wallis's "A Collection of Letters and Other Papers in Cipher" (1653).

The Great Cipher of Louis XIV

Even as King Charles I's head was rolling from the executioner's block, the French King Louis ("L'état c'est moi") XIV (1638-1715) was coming of age. Louis XIII had died in 1643, when XIV was still only five years old, so his mother, Anne of Austria, acted as regent until he came of age in 1651. However, the "Sun King" only really came into his own with the death of his chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, ten years later. There followed a period of the most intense international intrigue, even for those times, as the various European dynasties strove to settle issues such as Bourbon versus Habsburg, Rome versus Venice, and protestant versus catholic. Over the ensuing four decades, Louis fought four wars to further the glory of France. The first of these (1667-1668) was against Spain, the second (1672-1678) was against Holland, Spain, and Austria, the third (1688-1697) was against the "League of Augsburg" (Britain, Austria, Spain, Holland, and much of what is today Germany), and the fourth (1701-1714), the War of the Spanish Succession, was against just about everybody in Europe.

Cryptologically, the reign of Louis XIV is most famous for Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol's development of the Great Cipher. Here is how Singh (1999, pp55-56) tells it:

"The Great Cipher was used to encrypt the king's most secret messages, protecting details of his plans, plots, and political schemings. [It] was invented by the father-and-son team of Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignil [and] was so secure that it defied the fforts of [.....] generations of codebreakers."

It was so good, in fact, that when the Rossignols died, its secret died out with them, and nobody could re-crack it until Etienne Bazeries in the closing years of the nineteenth century.

Cave Beck in 1657 and Athanasius Kircher in 1663 had also broadened the horizons of cryptological theory with their respective "universal languages". These were numerically indexed all-encompassing dictionaries - "pasigraphies" - which in Kircher's case consisted of 1048 clusters of synonyms and near-synonyms, organised under 32 major headings (note these numbers). It was thus not dissimilar to the modern Roget's Thesaurus. Such systems both allow and encourage cryptological applications because they provide a ready-made, and by definition comprehensive, numerical code book. The diaries of Samuel Pepys (1659-1669) were also written in a shorthand cipher of this type, partly to save paper, and partly to keep them from prying eyes, not least (and with good reason) his wife's. They were not published until 1825, because nobody could work out the encryption system he had used.

Beck and Kircher may well have been on to something. In Smith (1997b), you will find a short section entitled Max Müller and the Search for Semantic Absolutes. In it, we described yet another pasigraphy, that of the nineteenth century linguistic philosopher, Max Müller. Here is the relevant background .....

"[Max Müller] was one of the first to recognize that word meanings are constantly evolving, and spent a lifetime studying the etymologies of words in a variety of languages with a view to tracking down their derivations (Müller, 1887). Working in this way, he reduced all languages to much smaller pools of word roots and fundamental concepts. To give but one example, the Greek words for lift, compare, tribute, spread, delay, bury, madness, endure, recover, reproach, help, and excel (to name but a few) all derive in various ways from f e r , 'to bear'. Müller's central argument goes as follows: 'Give us about 800 roots, and we can explain the largest dictionary; give us about 121 concepts, and we can account for the 800 roots. Even these 121 concepts might be reduced to a much smaller number, if we cared to do so.' (op. cit., p551.) [and] Saban (1993) chooses 31 basic 'semantic fields'." (Smith 1997b, p204.)

In other words, different pasigraphies have no trouble working to core dictionaries of wildly different sizes. However, we then suggested that the various numbers might not be so different after all .....

"..... to be precise, they might just represent three points on the powers of two dimension. That is to say, we need five bits of information to specify a single one of Saban's 31 semantic fields, seven bits of information to specify a single one of Müller's 121 original concepts, and ten bits of information to specify a single one of Roget's 1000 related ideas." (Smith 1997b, p204.)

And to explain this possible pattern, we suggested that human conceptual memory might somehow operate according to a "binary chop" principle [technical details], so that the natural size of a given pasigraphy would always be a power of two (that is to say, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, and so on), or roughly so.

The Golden Age of Conspiracy, I - The Wars of Succession

Back across the English Channel, Britain remained in the grip of religious confrontation. When Charles II died in 1685, he left no legitimate heirs, and was accordingly replaced by his brother, the catholic James II/VII, much to the chagrin of his own illegitimate son, the protestant James Scott, Duke of Monmouth. A number of armed coups were attempted, and, after a lot of bloodshed, James II was replaced by the protestant William of Orange [fuller story]. The cryptological history here is that William, too, was a keen user of coded correspondence, having conspired in cipher with Admiral Edward Russell (later Earl of Orford) in 1688, prior to making his successful bid for the throne. However, no sooner had James been deposed, than his supporters across Europe began a 60-year campaign to have him (or, after his death in 1701, a suitable descendent of his) reinstated. A number of anti-protestant uprisings then took place, known collectively as the "Jacobite Rebellions" (1689-1748) (James = Jacques/Jacob in French). There were two main "Pretenders" to the throne, respectively, James III/VIII and Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie"). One of the most active conspirators in the early years was William Standish, of Standish Hall, Lancashire. He was a Jacobite sympathiser, and used a cipher in 1694 which was so cryptic that it was not broken until the 1920s (Johnson, 2002 online).

William died on 8th March 1702, having been thrown from his horse when it stumbled into a mole hole ("Hurrah for the mole", cheered the catholic opposition), and his sister-in-law, Anne, the last of the Stuarts, took over. When she died heirless in 1714, the nearest acceptable protestant was George, Prince of Hanover, and he was crowned George I of Britain on 20th October 1714. His great-grandson, George III (see under American Revolution below) was therefore also a Hanover, as was Queen Victoria in her turn until she became a Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (since anglicised as Wind-sor) upon her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840. This reassertion of protestantism naturally infuriated the Jacobite opposition, and there were major uprisings in 1715, 1719, and 1745. The full cryptohistory of this period is told in Hugh Douglas's "Jacobite Spy Wars" (1999), although there is online coverage of Thomas Southcott's correspondence as the principal Jacobite fundraiser in England, in which he used codenames for both proper names and nouns (Scott, 2002 online).

The Golden Age of Conspiracy, II - The Wars of Secession

The next cryptologist of note (not to say downright notoriety) was Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781; from 1763, Lord le Despencer), a larger than life character, who managed to combine his spying and cryptology with diversions such as gambling, devil worship, and debauchery (by virtue of which, Knowles, 2002 online, dubs him "the rogue of his day"). It so happened that mid-eighteenth century Britain was an age of "clubmanship", a period in which the nobility indulged their darker passions behind the closed doors of each other's mansions. Such clubs went by the generic name "hell-fire clubs", and Dashwood's was a hell-fire club extraordinaire. Its members called themselves the "Friars of St Francis of Wycombe", and they celebrated either in some underground workings at West Wycombe House, Buckinghamshire [picture], Dashwood's family seat, or at Medmenham Abbey a few miles away (where the motto over the entrance was an alluring "Do As You Will"). Their interests were "sex, drink, food, dressing up, politics, blasphemy, and the occult" (Knowles, op. cit.), not to mention applied cryptology, the key to not getting caught doing any of the others. And spying. Only 13 men formed the "inner order", namely "the Abbot" - Despencer himself - and 12 "Apostles", who included, over the years, such personages as the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Queensbury, the Earl of Bute (later Prime Minister), Sir John Montague (1718-1792) (Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who according to legend invented the snack named after him to save having to waste time away from Dashwood's card table), John Wilkes (the reformer), and William Hogarth (the painter). A baboon was dressed up as a chaplain during selected revelries, and the estate boasted a well-stocked library of pornography, including one of the earliest translations of the Kama Sutra (Knowles, op. cit.). [The bare bones of this story have been written into a number of (usually pretty poor) movie plots, including the 1960 Peter Cushing offering, "The Hell Fire Club".]

As to the cryptology, Dashwood has been reported as both Crown and Jacobite agent in the 1740s, but was in truth probably a double agent for the Crown (Deacon, 1980). Certainly, by catering to the lusts of powerful people he made powerful friends, serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer for a few months in 1762, and as Postmaster General - de facto controller of the British black chambers, remember - from 1766 to 1781, and it was in this latter role that he was visited in 1773 by the American Deputy Postmaster General, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).

Which brings us to the American Revolution (1775-1783). We begin this story back in 1748, when the same Benjamin Franklin published a book on codes and ciphers by one George Fisher. Thereafter, he both applied the known techniques within his circle of acquaintances, and further developed the science by inventing the "homophonic substitution cipher" [details] in 1781. But Franklin's acquaintances, of course, included many prominent colonial dissidents, and as a major public figure needing to communicate privately with correspondents over long distances, Franklin was a regular user of encryption methods. Indeed, it has since become a point of modern US law that "cryptographic systems [aided Franklin's] correspondence and that of fellow patriots" (Bernstein, 1997).

So why was Franklin so interested in Dashwood? Here is Deacon (1980):

"Four members of [Dashwood's Hell-Fire Club] were undoubtedly mixed up in espionage and gained much of their intelligence through belonging to it. Almost certainly several of the other members were at one time or another working for British Intelligence. The four were John Wilkes [], the Chevalier D'Eon de Beaumont, a French diplomat, Sir Francis Dashwood himself, and, surprisingly enough, Benjamin Franklin, the statesman and philosopher." (Deacon, 1980, p100.)

"Franklin was a regular visitor at Dashwood's home, West Wycombe House, where he stayed in the summers of 1773 and 1774. In the papers of one John Norris, of Hughendon Manor, Buckinghamshire, there is the enigmatic comment: '3 June 1778. Did this day heliograph intelligence from Dr Franklin in Paris to Wycombe'. Norris had built a 100-ft tower on a hill at Camberley, Surrey, from the top of which he used to signal and place bets by heliograph with Lord le Descencer at West Wycombe. // Franklin refers to a sixteen-day visit at Dashwood's home, West Wycombe House, in July 1772 which is significant in that it was in the months of June and July that the Chapters of the Brotherhood were held." (Deacon, 1980, pp112-113.)

The Montague Millennium website has made available some material from Cecil B. Currey's "Road to Revolution: Benjamin Franklin in England, 1765-1775" (Currey 1969), which give general background to Dashwood's creation of the Medmenham Monks, of their debaucheries, and of Franklin's part in it [read this extract]. Readers wishing to stand where Franklin once stood will be pleased to hear that tours of Dashwood's Hell-Fire Caves (complete with a waxwork Abbot in the act of toasting the devil) can be arranged [pictures; link].

Other major crypto-players from the period were:

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826): Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia gentleman farmer and lawyer, drafted the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, and commonly used codes and ciphers for both Pepysian and patriotic purposes. In fact, he is often credited with inventing the "cipher cylinder". Kahn (1996) concludes that said apparatus was indeed invented by Jefferson, some time between 1790 and 1800, and describes it as being "so far ahead of its time, and so much in the spirit of the later inventions, that it deserves [] front rank among them" (p192). The mechanism consisted of a number of separate Alberti disks, each carrying a randomised alphabet stamped around its circumference, and drilled through at the centre. These wheels were then threaded in a predetermined order along a central spindle, and rotated so that a string of characters from the plaintext can be seen along one axial line. Any of the other 25 lines of letters can then be used as the ciphertext, and the recipient of the message can only decipher it if s/he knows both the disk sequence and the rotational positions. The process was then repeated for the next chunk of plaintext, and so on until the entire message has been processed. Gaddy (1993 online; Figure 3) provides a picture of an unidentified cipher cylinder from this general period, and we meet the equipment again when we get to the late nineteenth century. Jefferson was subsequently President of the USA from 1801 to 1809.

Arthur Lee (1740-1792): Arthur Lee was born in Stratford, VA, but educated in Britain. He qualified initially as a physician, then as a lawyer. During this period, he was closely associated with one of Despencer's twelve "apostles", John Wilkes, and came to see himself as a "crusading patriot" (Rhatican, 2002 online), a political writer in support of American independence. He thus did much to turn colonial disaffection into active rebellion, referring to the British House of Commons as "the most tremendous tyranny that ever existed " (ibid.). During the revolution itself, he helped found the Committee of Secret Correspondence on 3rd June 1776, and arranged a dictionary-based cipher system to help keep that correspondence secret.

George Washington (1732-1799): George Washington was born in Wakefield, VA, and trained as a surveyor in the 1740s. He joined the Freemasons in 1752, and then had a successful military career in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), making Lieutenant-Colonel in the colonial militia at the age of only 22, and full colonel a year later. It was this combination of overt and covert standing which got him the post of Commander-in-Chief of the first Continental Army in July 1775, and it was his qualities of icy determination and attention to detail which helped the colonists prevail. After the war, he was the obvious choice to become the first president of the USA. 

The revolution proper did not begin formally until July 1776, but was preceded by significant formative events such as the Boston "tea party" of 1773, the Hutchinson Affair of 1774, and the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in 1775. When the revolution finally became a shooting war, the British spymaster was William Eden (1744-1814), later First Baron Auckland, one of George III's principal advisors. One of Eden's agents was the London/Guyana plantation owner, Paul Wentworth (1749-1793), who, having been born in New Hampshire, retained many contacts in the Americas. Eden therefore had Wentworth organise a small spy ring there, in order to monitor both political and military developments. However, the Americans gave as good as they got (and often a whole lot better). Ryan and Ryan (2002 online) tell the story of how Dr Benjamin Church, a Boston physician, was arrested in late-1775 for spying for the then British commander, General Thomas Gage. Church's intelligence had been material to Gage's decision to confiscate an accumulation of military contraband, an action which provoked the first major engagements of the revolution, at Lexington and Concord, on 19th April 1775. His encryption method was a monoalphabetic substitution cipher, and it was duly broken on 3rd October 1775.

George Washington's own account of the Church affair is available online in a letter to Congress dated 5th October 1775, and includes the following:

"I have now a painful tho' a necessary duty to perform respecting Doctor Church, Director General of the Hospital. About a week ago Mr Secretary of Providence [presumably Henry Ward, Secretary of State for Rhode Island] sent up to me one Wainwood [Godfrey Wainwood, a Newport baker], with a letter directed to Maj'r Cane [one of Gage's aides; Kahn identifies him as Maurice Cane; possibly 6th Regiment of Foot] in Boston, in Characters [note this quaint term], which he said had been left with Wainwood some time ago by a woman who was kept by Doctor Church; she had before prep'd Wainwood to take her to Captain Wallace [of the frigate HMS Rose, on blockade duties off Newport], Mr. Dudley the collector or George Home, which he declined; she then gave him the letter with a strict charge to deliver it to either of those gentlemen. He suspecting some improper correspondence kept the letter and after some time open'd it, but not being able to read it laid it up, where it remained until he received an obscure letter from the woman, expressing an anxiety after the original letter, he then communicated the whole matter to Mr Ward who sent him up with the papers to me; I immediately secured the woman, but for a long time she was proof against every threat & persuasion to discover the author, however at length she was brought to a confession and named Doctor Church. I then immediately secured him and all his papers. Upon his first examination he readily acknowledged the letter, said it was designed for his brother Fleming [John Fleming, his brother-in-law, a Boston printer, and therefore on the British side of the lines] and when decyphered would be found to contain nothing criminal. He acknowledged his never having communicated the correspondence to any person here but the girl, and made many protestations of the purity of his intentions. Having found a person capable of decyphering the letter, I in the meantime had all his papers searched but found nothing criminal amongst them, but it appeared upon enquiry that a confidant had been among the papers before my messenger arrived. I then called the General Officers together for their advice, the result of which you will find in the inclosure No. 1. The decyphered letter is in the inclosure No. 2." (From the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799; Series 3a, sheets 53-54.)

Rafalko (2003 online) takes up the story:

"An amateur cryptanalyst stepped forward in the person of Reverend Samuel West, who happened to have been a Harvard classmate of Church. A second person, Elbridge Gerry, a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the Committee of Safety, who would later be the fifth vice-president of the United States, teamed with Colonel Elisha Porter, a colonel in the Massachusetts militia to conduct a separate cryptanalytic attack on the cipher. Church had used a type of cipher known as a monoalphabetic substitution, one of the easiest to solve []. Both West and the Gerry-Porter team provided Washington with identical translations ....."

The full transcript of Church's letter is online at the Massachusetts archives [click here], and the following extract is indicative enough .....

"..... I counted 280 pieces of cannon ..... I saw 2200 men ..... Twenty tons of powder lately arrived at Philadelphia, Connecticut, and Providence ..... An army will be raised in the middle provinces to take possession of Canada ..... Make use of every precaution or I perish."

Church was duly convicted, served some months in prison at Norwich, CT, and was then lost at sea en route for a new life in the West Indies.

Eden was similarly unsuccessful in trying to thwart American attempts to secure European allies against the British. When it became known that the Americans were sending a senior delegation (Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Lee, and Silas Deane) to the French Court to begin negotiations, Wentworth quickly recruited the delegation's secretary, Edward Bancroft, (or at least he thought he had recruited him, for he was possibly a double-agent whom the Americans willingly allowed to be placed in the party specifically to spy on the British - Davidson and Lytle, 1992/2002 online).

The Franco-American negotiations began in May 1776, and the French were initially somewhat cautious: true, the British had few friends in France, where memories of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) were still fresh and raw, but equally the French could not risk siding openly with the Americans until their victory was assured. Eden was kept fully informed of the delicate negotiations by Bancroft's secret correspondence. Davidson and Lytle (1992/2002 online) explain how it was done .....

"Eventually Bancroft discovered that he could pass his information directly to the British ambassador at the French court. To do so, he wrote innocent letters on the subject of "gallantry" and signed them 'B. Edwards'. On the same paper would go another note written in invisible ink, to appear only when the letter was dipped in a special developer held by Lord Stormont, the British ambassador. Bancroft left his letters every Tuesday morning in a sealed bottle in a hole near the trunk of a tree on the south terrace of the Tuileries, the royal palace. Lord Stormont's secretary would put any return information near another tree on the same terrace." 

Among the matters which thereby came to light were the efforts of the French playwright-spy Pierre de Beaumarchais (with the full, but covert, blessing of the French government) to organise a fleet of some 40 vessels to traffick "no supplies whatsoever" from France to America via the Caribbean. The existence of such secret aid prior to the formal declaration of war was, of course, officially denied (CIA website), but this gun-running was material to the pivotal American victory at Saratoga in 1777. It was the third man in the delegation, Silas Deane, who did the organising in this respect, he having been included in the party at the behest of the Continental Congress's Committees (a) of Secrecy, and (b) of Correspondence (Connecticut Historical Society, 2002 online). He used at least one alias ("Timothy Jones") and used a heat-developing invisible ink made from cobalt chloride and glycerine for his reports back to America (CIA website).

ASIDE: These two committees were the colonials' de facto Foreign Office, and "..... employed secret agents abroad, conducted covert operations, devised codes and ciphers, funded propaganda activities, authorised the opening of private mail, acquired foreign publications for use in analysis, established a courier system, and developed a maritime capability apart from that of the navy. It met secretly in December 1775 with a French intelligence agent who visited Philadelphia under cover as a Flemish merchant, and engaged in regular communications with Britons and Scots who sympathised with the Patriots' cause." (CIA website.)

In the end, the well-honed conspiratorial skills of Franklin, Lee, and Deane proved the decisive factor. The British were out-thought and out-plotted, and the Franco-American Treaty was duly signed 6th February 1778, making France one of the first countries to recognise the new United States of America. For the remainder of the war French ships sailed openly (now) alongside those flying the Stars and Stripes.

ASIDE: Deacon (1980) suggests a different scenario. Benjamin Franklin, he argues, was a British agent (codename "Agent 72") from around 1772, and successfully betrayed many of Beaumarchais' blockade runners. In his analysis, the British intelligence operation in Paris was never so successful than when Franklin happened to be in town. Deane fell into disgrace in 1781 for suggesting treasonously that the US would do well to rejoin Britain, and died near London of a sudden "oppression at his stomach" on 22nd September 1789. Davidson and Lytle (1992/2002 online) suggest that Bancroft, now living reasonably comfortably in London on his spy's pension from the British government, poisoned him to prevent his own double life being revealed. The British do seem to have seen through at least one cover story, that of the soldier-turned-artist, John Trumbull (1756-1843). Trumbull was the son of Jonathan Trumbull, a friend of George Washington, and the only pre-revolutionary Governor (of Connecticut) to declare immediately for the revolution. John's brother, Jonathan Jr., was "confidential secretary to General Washington" and his brother-in-law William Williams was one of the 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence (Office of the Curator's website, US Capitol, 1997/2002 online). John served with distinction in Washington's Continental Army, rapidly reaching the rank of Colonel, until on 22nd February 1777 - with the war still raging - he suddenly decided to give it all up to become an artist (although, fortunately for his former comrades, this new calling was not so debilitating as to prevent him assisting General Sullivan's campaign against the heavy British fortifications around Newport, RI, in high summer 1778). Two years later, he made his way to France, carrying at least one letter from Benjamin Franklin, master cryptologist. On balance of probabilities, therefore, we see little injustice in the fact that when he took his easel to Britain a few weeks after that Trumbull the artist was promptly arrested as Trumbull the spy.

Washington, meanwhile, had been busy winning the real war. After the incident with Church, he had assumed personal responsibility for his Continental Army's intelligence service, through his spymaster Major Benjamin Tallmadge, codename "John Bolton". Their operative in (British) New York City was Robert Townsend, codename "Samuel Culper, Jr", an apparently loyal merchant. The network was put together in 1778 to help Washington in his stand-off with the latest British commander, Sir Henry Clinton. Townsend sent out regular reports on troop movements and morale, writing in code, cipher, and invisible ink, as well as sending messages via a makeshift flaghoist involving the raising of petticoats on washing lines (CIA website).

The Culper ring used a "nomenclator", a hybrid cipher-cum-code. The cipher encrypts the bulk of the message, but critical content words are given code words beforehand. Nomenclators were developed by Gabrieli di Lavinde in the late 14th century (Kahn, 1996), and in this particular one (devised by Tallmadge) 38 meant "attack", 192 meant "fort", 660 meant "vigilant", 703 meant "wagon", 711 was George Washington, 723 was Townsend, 727 was New York, and 728 Long Island. When the ring needed something special, it also had access to one of the cryptoanalytic geniuses of the day, James Lovell, of the Continental Congress's Committee of Secret Correspondence, whom Kahn (op. cit., p181) describes as "the father of American cryptanalysis" for his part in deciphering despatches from Lord Cornwallis shortly before the Yorktown campaign in 1781.

At the beginning of this final and ultimately decisive campaign, the British had two major strongholds on the American eastern seaboard, Clinton in and around New York City and Lord Charles Cornwallis in and around Yorktown, a touch over 300 miles further to the south. In an eighteenth century act of bluffery not dissimilar to Operation Fortitude during the Second World War [details], Washington secretly moved about 80% of his forces away from the New York City siege lines and sent them south towards Cornwallis. The remaining 20% did their best to conceal their sudden weakness by making five times the normal noise and dust, and the double agent James Rivington used Clinton's trust in his intelligence to persuade him that Washington's main force remained the other side of his defences. This was awesome "total generalship" on Washington's part, because the strategy, the tactics, and the intelligence support all dovetailed together perfectly, and the ruse worked spectacularly well. Clinton duly abandoned any ideas he had of reinforcing either the naval or the shore defences around Yorktown, and Cornwallis, caught off balance both on land and at sea, surrendered his forces on 19th October 1781. The War of Independence was then over bar the shouting. Not for nothing had Washington allocated more than ten percent of his military budget to intelligence operations (Deacon, 1980). [For more on the gunpowder war, see Allen (2001 online), and for more on Dr Edward Bancroft, see Rafalko, 2002; Chap3 online. See also Fraser (1997/2002 online, Part III (entire).]

The American Revolution ended formally with the three-way "Peace of Paris" in 1783, but this was not an end to American political intriguing. Jefferson corresponded with James Madison in cipher while framing the US Bill of Rights in the late 1780s (Bernstein, 1997; but see also Hobson and Rutland, 1978 and Smith, 1995), and there was also correspondence in a curious mixture of plaintext and ciphertext between Madison and other officials negotiating the Louisiana Purchase with Napoleonic France in the period 1803-1804 [specimen]. Fraser (1997/2002 online) lists many other instances of secret communication during this period, and summarises the role of cryptology in the American struggle for independence this way:

"From the beginnings of the American Revolution in 1775 until the adoption of the United States Constitution, Americans used codes, ciphers, and other secret writings to foment, support, and carry to completion a rebellion against the British government. In the words of one author, 'America was born of revolutionary conspiracy' [Ref.]."

Encryption in the Age of the Optical Telegraph

"The secret of war is to make oneself master of communications." [Napoleon, "Maxims of War".]

Scarcely was the American Revolution over, than the French Revolution began. The period 1789-1815 is then marked by three historically distinct but technologically similar phases. The first of these, the French Revolution proper, started with the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, ended with the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, and was part bloody civil war and regicide, and part war with Austria and Prussia. The second phase started with the extension of the war to include Britain, Spain, and Holland in 1793, and ended in 1799 when Napoleon became First Consul. The third phase - the "Napoleonic Wars" - began in 1800 with First Consul Napoleon reopening the fight against the Austrians with campaigns at Marengo and Hohenlinden, became more intense after he was made Emperor of France in 1804, and ended at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. During this latter phase, France was actively at war with Britain all of the time, and on and off with various coalitions of Austria, Russia, Prussia, Spain, and Portugal, as particular circumstances dictated.

The Napoleonic Wars were another cryptologically active period. Napoleon's chief of police more or less without break after 1799 was Joseph Fouché (1759-1820), a cold and calculating revolutionary extremist, and a skilled political survivor. Fouché, once described as "the father of modern espionage", achieved his reputation in the mid-1790s thanks to his ruthless dealings with the aristocracy, counter-revolutionaries, the church, and anybody else unlucky enough to get in his way, and it was his habit to send Bonaparte daily secret reports of gossip, public opinion, rumour, and intercepted correspondence. If sedition was spoken one day, he boasted, he would know about it the next day (and the emperor, presumably, the day after). Another less well told cryptostory from this period seems to be that of a Dr Joseph Head Marshall, but our researches here are incomplete.

The Napoleonic age is also technologically significant as the birthplace of the optical telegraph (as described in Part 1), and the cryptological impact of this invention is that because it "broadcasts" rather than "beams" its signal it actually increased the need for encryption systems and services rather than decreasing it. A commander no longer had to capture one of his opponent's message bearers, in other words, because anyone with a decent telescope and a convenient hiding place could see every move of the enemy semaphore's arms. The champion of the French optical telegraph, Claude Chappe, therefore provided a detailed codebook to go with his hardware. Kahn (1996) gives details, if interested.

The French also used a range of ciphers in the Iberian Campaign ("The Peninsular War") in 1811. To start with, there were a number of petits chiffres for low priority messages. These would substitute 50 or so key nouns but would only protect the content for a matter of hours. For more strategic communications, his generals introduced a special grand chiffre, a 1400-character codebook along the lines of Louis XIV's chiffre indechiffrable. There was also the "Army of Portugal" cipher, the "Great Paris cipher", and the common cipher, but eventually these were all broken by one of Wellington's Staff Officers, Captain George Scovell. Henceforward, Wellington routinely gathered such intelligence using a small but highly mobile force of Scovell's - some experienced men, plus "Portuguese smugglers, Spanish ne'er-do-wells, and Irish soldiers of fortune" (Urban, 2001, p57). His term for information gathered in this way was "seeing over the hill", and it therefore contrasts appropriately with optical telegraphy, which merely sees from hilltop to hilltop.

The last three years of the Napoleonic Wars saw two major European campaigns and another American war. The European campaigns were (a) Napoleon's abortive Russian campaign of 1812 (see next section), and (b) the "hundred days" campaign of 1815, which culminated in the finally decisive Battle of Waterloo. The American campaign was the Anglo-American War of 1812-1814 (the "White House" War), which took place during the presidency of James Madison. It is best known for two key events, (a) the tit-for-tat burning of government buildings, and (b) the Battle of New Orleans. Cryptologically, the war is notable only for the fact that the American intelligence system had slumped badly from the heights of efficiency to which George Washington had raised it (Fishel, 1996), this despite the fact that President Madison had been an active user of cryptography for some 40 years. The Battle of New Orleans is notable not just as a case study in flawed military decision making (on the British part), but also for the fact that it took place on 8th January 1815, two weeks after peace had been declared, the news having yet to reach Louisiana - a reminder of how deficient long distance communications really were at that time.

The Great Game, 1815-1852

The irony of Napoleon's abortive invasion of Russia in 1812 was that it allowed and encouraged the Romanovs to emerge as major new players on the international scene [for an introduction to Russian royal history between 1613 and the bloodbath of 1917, click here]. The Russia of Catherine the Great (1729-1796) had been significantly pro-British, thanks to tireless work back in the 1770s and 1780s (a) by the British ambassador there, Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, and (b) by our old friend Sir Francis Dashwood (so significantly pro-British, in fact, that the latter even managed to bed the Tsarina (Deacon, op. cit.). Catherine's successor, Paul I (reigned 1796-1801) tended to side with Bonaparte but did not live long, and his son Alexander I (reigned 1801-1825) quickly realigned Russia with Britain for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars.

ASIDE: In other words, while the Americans had been courting the French in their struggle against the British, the British had been courting the Russians against the French, and Sir William Eden lived just long enough to take solace, no doubt, from every disastrous frozen mile of Bonaparte's 1812 retreat from Moscow.

After Alexander I's death in 1825, everything changed. Alexander was succeeded by his brother Nicholas I (reigned 1825-1855), who grew increasingly tyrannical as the years unfolded, and became increasingly obsessed with territorial expansion. This led to two new trouble spots along Russia's southern borders, one as they tried to take the Crimea back from the Turkish Empire, and the other as they tried to destabilise the British in India. This latter adventure became known to the British as "the Great Game" after one of those who fought in it, Lieutenant Arthur Conolly, used the term in his 1834 memoirs (see Buxton, 2002 online), whilst to the Russians it became the "Tournament of Shadows". A period of small regional uprisings and wars followed, culminating in the First Afghan War (1839-1842). The "North West Frontier" (the land between Afghanistan and modern Pakistan where the Taliban and Al Qaeda hid so successfully in winter 2001) remained a running sore on the eastern flank of the British Empire for the next century, and the Great Game began an age of Central Asian high-sierra intrigue which is worthy of note for no more compelling reason than that it has not yet run its length and could go nuclear, chemical, or biological at any moment (see Rainwater, 2002 online). The story is told in greater detail in Hopkirk (1994) and Meyer and Brysac (2001).


See Main Menu File.

Where To Next?


[Codes and Ciphers in History, Part 2 - 1853 to 1917]

[Codes and Ciphers in History, Part 3 - 1918 to 1945]