Ciphers and Passwords have a lengthy history which long predates modern computing. Long before they were used by teenagers to protect their Snapchat accounts; generals, businesses, and spies all required secrecy for their communications. SSLs.com decided to investigate further, creating this visual collection of the most notable examples of secret codes from history.
Some of the earliest recorded systems of secrecy come from antiquity. The armies of ancient Sparta, famed for their military prowess in the field, were also ardent bureaucrats. Their unique Scytale method of encryption required messages to be written on a long stretch of hide, and then wrapped around a carved staff. Only when the message was wrapped around a staff of the same measurements could it be made legible again.
Some methods of disguising messages have proved less successful, for example the Babington Plot Cipher, used by Mary Queen of Scots to plot the murder of Queen Elizabeth I from her prison cell. This method simply swapped letters in the English alphabet into symbols. It was very quickly cracked, and Mary was promptly executed.
In war, the stakes are highest, so the toughest codes come about. The Napoleonic Wars was an intense period of code cracking and encryption. It culminated in the ‘Great Paris Cypher’ which featured thousands of possible combinations of numbers, many red herrings, and several codes which all meant the same phrases. While previous French efforts to disguise their communications had been cracked in several days, it was not until the British captured a French code book, that they could they understand this intricate method of disguising military plans.
By the Second World War, communications had gone wireless, and were even easier to intercept. Germany’s response to this challenge was the Enigma machine, which had been created originally to encrypt business communications. Repurposed by the Third Reich, this multi-disc system of jumbling (and then unjumbling) messages was considered impossible to crack by many as the variables were reset every day. British codebreaker Alan Turing eventually managed to crack the code, using a unique machine which paved the way to modern computing.
As companies increasingly look towards biometrics and two-factor authentication, it leaves us wondering where encryption could go next.
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