Posted by: drgeophysics | September 22, 2009

Celebrating 60 years of cryptography

Useful in cryptography--the first modern computer circa 1944.

Useful in cryptography--the first modern computer circa 1943.

I have always been fascinated by codes and cryptography.  Below in this blog in a link is an interesting article celebrating 60 years of cryptography in pictures.  The celebration is in order because of the anniversary of the publication of Dr. Claude Elwood Shannon’s landmark scientific paper in 1949  “Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems“,  (here is a link to the 60 page paper) a declassified version of his wartime work on the mathematical theory of cryptography, in which he showed that all unbreakable ciphers have the same requirements as the one-time pad.

Claude Elwood Shannon (1916-2001)

Claude Elwood Shannon (1916-2001)

The one-time pad is a nightmare scenario for cryptographers, entire military and black-bag missions were planned around acquiring information regarding such one-time encryption/decryption pads.   Here is an  interesting description of his interests and work. Even as a child he said that he was always fascinated by “how things worked“.  Few can claim to have worked on rocket-powered flying discs and motorized pogo sticks, but Dr. Shannon can claim such an honor. As part of his research Dr. Claude Shannon built an electromechanical mouse, which he called “Theseus”, which could learn how to navigate mazes.  This was one of the first experiments in artificial intelligence.

I have known a few cryptographers and they are an interesting group.  One of my dear friends, now deceased, had worked as a young man maintaining one of these computer systems in the early 1950’s at the National Bureau of Standards.  He worked on the (now ancient)   UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) computer system.  It weighed approximately 16,000 pounds, used 5,000 vacuum tubes, and was capable of performing an amazing 1,000 calculations per second.  Wish you were programming this beast?  Get your fresh roll of paper tape ready and read this manual (predates computer cards).

My late friend’s stories were wonderful.  He mentioned Dr. Grace Hopper and originally told me where the phase “bug in the computer” came from.  Dr. Hopper held a Admiral’s rank in the United States Navy and was a driving force behind the invention of the computer language COBOL, among many other accomplishments.

Grace Hopper a pioneer in electronic-based mathematics

Grace Hopper a pioneer in electronic-based mathematics

Dr. Grace Hopper was a pioneer in mathematics and early computer systems. Within one of her computer systems a malfunction that had to be tracked down and isolated.  The discovery of the problem is where the phase “a bug in the system” comes from.  It was literally a bug that was smashed  in an electromechanical relay by one of these early computer systems.  My colleague mentioned the noise of these early systems, there are videos at the end of this blog that wonderfully give a sense of the complexity and environment of these early computers.   But back to our bug, in fact here is the bug below.

A computer bug (RIP), found at 1545 hours on 9/9

A computer bug (RIP), found at 1545 hours on 9/9

As one who understands the importance of organization and careful recording of metadata in projects the page above from the operations  logbook is a treasure.  Here are some links related to the cryptography activity.

Here is the link to an interesting slide set (that motivated this blog).

This is an excellent history of cryptography.

Slideshow of a brief history of cryptography.

Historical publications of the National Security Agency (interesting collection of PDFs). The old logo for the NSA used to be a simple letter substitution graphic, I rather preferred it to their modern one.   Here is their photo gallery.

The National Museum of Computing (including WW2 codebreaking Colossus).

Probably the most historic site—Bletchley Park National Codes Centre.

Colossus lives!

Colossus lives!

Colossus, the first electronic computer, has been rebuilt. Watch this fascinating video describing how this computer worked.

Here is a lecture describing the career of Alan Turing, a key player in cryptography and the cracking of ENIGMA, which produced ULTRA intelligence.  This professor is honest, intelligent and energetic.  He gets most of it correct and is excited about what he is talking about.  I would register for his classes, enjoy.

You might have noticed that words like algorithm and algebra have an “al” part, suggesting we inherit them from Islamic mathematics and science.  As mentioned in the lecture, we use the noun algorithm derived from this man’s name:

Al-Khwārizmī, Persian astronomer and mathematician, wrote a treatise in 825 AD, On Calculation with Arabic Numerals. (See algorism). It was translated into Latin in the 12th century as Algoritmi de numero Indorum (al-Daffa 1977), whose title is supposedly likely intended to mean “Algoritmi on the numbers of the Indians”, where “Algoritmi” was the translator’s rendition of the author’s name.”

Our species can be defined as one which uses technology to solve complex problems.  Working together, in a united way, there is no problem we cannot solve.

Secure transmission of information is central to our modern society.  Cheers to those scientists and engineers who created the secure modes of communication we benefit from daily.


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