Codebreakers chapter 2: The First 3,000 Years

The first 3,000 years of cryptography were dark, spotted with faint, but distinct flickers of light representing the few breakthroughs that were rapidly forgotten.

By the broadest definition, cryptography started around 1900 B.C. in Egypt. In this definition, cryptography has two elements. First, it is the deliberate transformation of writing. Second, it is done for secrecy. The second element was not present in its first manifestation 4000 years ago, but it’s a good enough starting place.

Most of the “cryptography” in these early years is a stretch. It was generally seen as closer to magic than anything else. References to its legitimate use for practical communications are sparse although there are many accounts describing the practice and techniques of enciphering. Cryptography appeared (then died) in many ancient civilizations including cameo in the story of Daniel and the writing on the wall as told in the Old Testament.

Unsurprisingly, serious cryptography, as with many other things, started with the Arabs. They are also the first to devise techniques for breaking enciphered text — also called cryptanalysis. However, this breakthrough quickly dissolved into darkness as a funny story of some guy who spent 15 years trying to break a mono-alphabetic cipher shows. This was 250 years after the author Al-Qalashandi had written what is probably the first exposition of cryptanalysis in history


  • Patience
  • Make a frequency table
  • Make a frequency chart of each letters’ contacts.
  • Guess
  • Be lucky
  • Patience

Cryptanalysis rests upon the fact that letters of language have “personalities” of their own. (page 99)

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