16 January 1999

The New York Times, January 16, 1999


The Granddaddies of All Hackers

Last month the United States and 32 other countries agreed to create new international controls on the export of data-scrambling hardware and software. Many nations fear that the most advanced scrambling, which makes it impossible for anyone without the key to decode the data, could thwart efforts by intelligence agencies to track terrorists. Though the issue is a product of the information age, battles over secret coding have far older precedents. Below are excerpts from "The Victorian Internet" (Walker & Company, 1998), by Tom Standage, in which he writes about what he calls the "19th-century precursor" to the Internet: the electric telegraph invented by Samuel Morse and Charles Wheatstone.

Cryptography -- tinkering with codes and ciphers -- was a common hobby among Victorian gentlemen. Wheatstone and his friend Charles Babbage, who is best known for his failed attempts to build a mechanical computer, were both keen crackers of codes and ciphers -- Victorian hackers, in effect. "Deciphering is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating of arts," Babbage wrote in his autobiography, "and I fear I have wasted upon it more time than it deserves."

He and Wheatstone enjoyed unscrambling messages that appeared in code in newspaper classified advertisements -- a popular way for young lovers to communicate, since a newspaper could be brought into a house without arousing suspicion, unlike a letter or a telegram. On one occasion Wheatstone cracked the cipher, or letter substitution code, used by an Oxford student to communicate with his beloved in London. When the student inserted a message suggesting to the young woman that they run away together, Wheatstone inserted a message of his own, also in cipher, advising her against it. The young woman inserted a desperate, final message: "DEAR CHARLIE: WRITE NO MORE. OUR CIPHER IS DISCOVERED!"

And there was certainly a demand for codes and ciphers; telegrams were generally, though unfairly, regarded as less secure than letters. . . . The obvious solution was to use a code.

Meanwhile, the rules determining when codes could and could not be used were becoming increasingly complicated as national networks, often with different sets of rules, were interconnected. . . . Finally, in 1864, the French Government decided it was time to sort out the regulatory mess. The major countries of Europe were invited to a conference in Paris to agree on a set of rules for international telegraphy. Twenty states sent delegates, and in 1865 the International Telegraph Union was born. The rules banning the use of codes by anyone other than government were scrapped; at last, people could legally send telegrams in code.

In the United States, where the telegraph network was controlled by private companies rather than governments, there were no rules banning the use of codes, so they were adopted much earlier. In fact, the first known public codes for the electric telegraph date back to 1845, when two code books were published to provide businesses with a means of communicating secretly using the new technology.

Of course, such codes weren't all that secret because the code books were widely available to everyone (though in some cases they could be customized). But before long another advantage of using such nonsecret codes, known as "commercial" codes, soon became clear -- to save money. By using a code that replaced several words with a single word, telegrams cost less to send.

By 1875, the use of commercial codes was starting to get out of hand. Some codes involved weird words, like "CHINESISKSLUTNINGSDON."

Every move the telegraph companies made to try to reduce the use of codes was neutralized by the increasing cunning of code compilers.

However, by this stage the drawbacks of such codes were becoming apparent to their users as well as the telegraph companies. Each code word meant so much that a single misplaced letter (or dot or dash) in transmission could dramatically change the meaning of a message.

One particularly graphic example occurred in June 1887, when Frank J. Primrose, a wood dealer in Philadelphia, sent William B. Toland to Kansas to act as his agent and buy wool on his behalf. Using a widely available off-the-shelf commercial code, the two men passed several messages back and forth as they kept each other informed of their transactions. But things went horribly wrong when Primrose sent a message explaining that he had bought 500,000 pounds of wool. The words "I HAVE BOUGHT" were encoded by the word "BAY" in the commercial code, and the amount 500,000 pounds by the word "QUO," so that "I HAVE BOUGHT ALL KINDS, 500,000 POUNDS" became "BAY ALL KIND QUO."

This message was incorrectly transmitted to Toland as "BUY ALL KINDS QUO," possibly because the Morse code for "A" (dot dash) differs by only one dot from the Morse code for "U" (dot dot dash). As a result, Toland . . . duly started to buy half a million pounds of wool. By the time the mistake had been uncovered, the market had turned and Primrose ended up losing $20,000. He tried to sue Western Union, the telegraph company that had transmitted the fateful message, but he lost because he had failed to ask for the message to be verified -- an optional service that would have cost him a few cents extra. Eventually, after a lengthy legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled that he was entitled to a refund only on the cost of sending the original telegram, or just $1.15.