Chapter 1, Part 4

The Analytical Engine

One of the most remarkable cryptologists of the 19th century was Charles Babbage, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University.26 His fascination with statistical phenomena led to a lifelong attempt to apply machinery to the calculation of mathematical tables. By “reversing” the cryptographic machines to focus on more general calculations, he devised a series of “difference engines.” The logical design of his now-famous “Analytical Engine” led to the designs of the modern electronic computers of today.

World War II

From Alberti’s cipher disks and Cardano’s autokey were derived the more sophisticated encoding machines developed by the Germans, known as ENIGMA, in World War II. These, in turn, would also pressure the development of the modern computer.

ENIGMA was the supposedly invulnerable Nazi war code. Extremely clever, this code seemed to elude all previous attempts to decipher it. One of the best-kept secrets of World War II was not revealed until 1974 when it was disclosed by the National Security Agency (NSA) that the Poles had quietly broken the vaunted Enigma encryption scheme. Its continued evolutions were monitored by ULTRA, a top-secret project in London. By incorporating mathematical, statistical, and machine-based computing advances, including those which came out of the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, the British and their allies were able to keep one step ahead of the continually mutating ENIGMA scheme.

The uncanny ability of General Erwin Rommel to anticipate the Allies’ every move was the result of the German cryptologists having cracked the American military code known as “BLACK.”27 When the cracking was discovered, in the fall of 1942, the tables turned and on October 23, 1942, Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps was defeated at El Alamein. “Before Alamein,” said Winston Churchill, “we never had a victory; after Alamein, we never had a defeat.”28

The Japanese had also adapted the ENIGMA machine into their own advanced variation, known among the Allies as “PURPLE.” Through the brilliance and dedication of William Friedman, head of the fledgling Signal Intelligence Service (the predecessor to the present National Security Agency), after 20 months of intense effort (and resulting in his subsequent mental collapse), the code was broken.

A German official had been leaked news of the cracking of PURPLE and had passed this information on to Tokyo. Fortunately, the Japanese refused to believe it. But the Japanese weren’t the only skeptics. It is disturbing to learn that the Signal Intelligence Service had warned their superiors about the Japanese plans for Pearl harbor – to the day and hour – but these warnings were dismissed.29

(There seems to be an eerie parallel in the present willingness by many to dismiss the controversial “Bible codes” as well.)

The abrupt vanquishing of the Nazi North Atlantic submarine wolfpacks, the air interception of Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto – who had devised the attack on Pearl Harbor – and the pivotal destruction of the Japanese carrier fleet at the Battle of Midway, were all results of the breaking of secret codes.

The Advent of the Computer

The recognition and urgency of the development of ever more sophisticated techniques in cryptology, computation, and mathematical statistics led to the ULTRA project. Two of the quiet heroes of the ULTRA endeavor were Alan Turing in London and John von Neumann at Los Alamos, both world-renowned mathematicians. Turing became known as the “father of computing software” and the theory of automata; Von Neumann, the “father of the modern computer” itself. It was Turing and Von Neumann who developed, from scratch, the high-speed computers and the sophisticated statistical techniques that could be applied to the decryption of complex codes, as well as the intensely iterative methods of advanced physics essential to the development of the atomic bomb.

A computer can be viewed as simply a calculator that pushes its own buttons. It was the architectural concept that programs, as well as data, could be stored in memory, which could thus lend themselves to self-modification, that distinguishes a computer from a simple calculator. This capability for self-modifying programs has led to the astonishing capabilities of today’s machines and the potential of the more generalized cognitive abilities of the infinite state machine. (Some of these implications will be explored in Section VI.)

The urgency of unequaled cryptographic sophistication has continued to increase as our military assets include space vehicles which require absolute controlling links via open communication channels with the ground and with the emergence of the battlefield of the future in which the electronic warfare tends to be won or lost on the drawing boards many years prior to any actual engagement.

It is interesting to notice how the cycle of cryptographic development has closed. The art of encryption had its roots in textual manipulations of the Kabbalah of Jewish mysticism (to be discussed in Chapter 13). These techniques led to cipher wheels and other mechanical aids of the Renaissance, which ultimately led to the computer. It seems fitting that it is now the computer which appears to be opening up secrets which may have been hidden there long before our history began.

The ultimate challenge still remains before us. Beyond the manipulations by military or political figures, even beyond the defense aspects, the more provocative question is, are there more cosmic codes – codes of extraterrestrial origin? These will turn up in the most surprising place imaginable! Indeed, hidden in plain sight.

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  1. Kahn, pp. 204-207.
  2. The compromise occurred by the successful photocopying of the BLACK code and its superencipherment tables from the American embassy safe in Rome. (Kahn, p. 472.)
  3. Kahn, pp. 472-477.
  4. Kahn, pp. 1-5.