Monday, August 29, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe and Cryptography

Edgar Allan Poe
To most people, cryptography has always been an obscure science of codes and secrets, performed by weird math wizards. Explaining how cryptography is intertwined with today's society, media and economy might evoke a bit of understanding of how important it is, but the general public won't let a minute of sleep for it.

The situation hasn't changed that much in the last century. On the contrary, 170 years ago, people were actually far more interested in cryptography than today, and this was, in large part, due to one man called Edgar Allan Poe.

A poet, author, literary critic and editor, Edgar Allan Poe has written about all kinds of things, but he's best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre. Poe was obviously attracted to cryptography because it is both science and mystery. He was interested in how code making and code breaking worked, but also in cryptography as an esoteric, almost black art, that appealed to people's imagination.

In 1840, Poe wrote some newspaper articles about cryptography and challenged the public to send him their own enciphered message. Encouraged by the reader's response, Poe published the essay "A Few Words on Secret Writing". He had sparked such a great interest in cryptgraphy that it was inevitable that he would write a story that incorporated cryptography. In 1843, his famous "The Gold-Bug" was a huge success. The story helped popularize cryptopgraphy as it never had before.

People loved to solve cryptogram puzzles in newspapers, they started to use secret writing on post cards and lovers sent messages to each other through encrypted newspaper adds. There has probably never been a greater interest in cryptography as in the 18th and early 19th century. The public interest and awareness has since disappeared. Regrettable, because cryptography is, more than ever, vital to our everyday life, and still is an exciting science with stories that appeal to the imagination (Enigma, the Navajo code talkers, Cold War espionage, the Zodiak killer etc...).

Although Poe is iconic for his use of cryptography in popular literature and became known as the man who could break any cryptogram (an overstatement), he was only a vivid amateur cryptologist. Nevertheless, he was of great influence, for he was a great ambassador of cryptography who pulled it out of its obscure and dark dungeon. More about the man who learned the people how to decipher messages is found on Edgar Allan Poe's The Gold-Bug, which still is a great introduction to cryptography.

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