20 May, 2024


History Of Cryptography

It’s natural that people want to communicate and share information. However, some information should only be shared with a few people. This is the reason why the art of coding was created. 

Messages could be coded in such a way that only the intended people could gain access to the information. This early form of cryptography was the simple writing of messages.

Cryptography was used for many years to hide secret information. But the systematic study of cryptography as a science or an art began around a hundred years ago – a reason why it is considered a young science. 

Continue reading to learn more about its history in this cryptography guide.

What is cryptography?

Cryptography is simply the science of writing codes or ciphers for safe communication and information sharing. It is a science that has been utilized in the development of modern blockchains and cryptocurrencies. 

However, the cryptographic methods utilized in today’s world are the result of a phenomenal long history of development. As far as ancient times, human beings have been using cryptography to send messages and information safely and securely. Below is a fascinating history of cryptography that has resulted in the advanced and sophisticated techniques used in modern digital encryption. 

Origins of cryptography

Primitive cryptographic methods are said to have existed in ancient times. A majority of the earliest civilizations seem to have used some degree of cryptography. Symbol replacement is the most basic form of cryptography which appeared in both ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian writings. Over 5600 ago, the Egyptians and Sumerians needed a better way to record and store transactions so they came up with hieroglyphics and cuneiform, which are some of the oldest forms of writing. 

Symbol replacement writings might not look like the worlds we read today, but they featured alphabetic, logographic and syllabic elements. While the Egyptians and Sumerians were familiar with these writings, an outsider wouldn’t be able to understand what they mean. It’s no surprise then that it was until the 19th century when both of these languages could be deciphered.

Later during the ancient past, cryptography was commonly used to conceal important information, a role that it still plays to this day. For example, in the Greek city-state of Sparta, information was encrypted by writing it on parchment laid over a cylinder. The message would remain undecipherable until it was wrapped around a similar cylinder. 

The most robust cryptography in the ancient world was probably the one used by the Romans. One prominent example was known as Caesar cipher. This Roman cryptography involved shifting the letters of the encrypted message by a particular number of places across the Latin alphabet. The recipient could decode the message by having an idea of how the system works and knowing the number of places to shift the letters. 

Improvement in the Middle Age

New ages brought new ciphers. Throughout the middle ages, cryptography grew in relevance, but substitution ciphers remained the standard. 

Over the centuries, ciphers got more sophisticated, as did the techniques that tried to decipher them, which are collectively called cryptanalysis. It refers to the science by which ciphers and codes are cracked. Cryptanalysis began to catch up to the still relatively primitive techniques of cryptography. People attempting to decipher encrypted messages were slowly gaining access to a systematic technique of doing so, and this made it necessary for cryptography to advance further to remain useful. 

Cryptography advancements in more recent centuries

The science of cryptography continued to improve progressive throughout the centuries. 

One breakthrough in cryptography came from Thomas Jefferson. He invented the cipher wheel, which was probably never built. It comprised of 36 rings of letters on moving wheels that could help people achieve complex coding. His concept was so advanced that it went on to serve as the basis for American military cryptography up to the Second World War.

Modern Age cryptography

A new age of cryptography was ushered in the 19th and 20th centuries by the development of complex electromechanical machines. For example, Samuel F. Morse utilized cryptography as a simple character encoding system to allow the transmission of messages through the telegraph in 1835. The next century saw cryptography as a very useful tool during war. The decryption of one telegram sent by the German Foreign office in the United States to the German Ambassador to Mexico marked a turning point in history. It led to the US`s entrance into the First World War.

World War II also saw the perfect example of analogue cryptography, referred to as the enigma machine. Just like the wheel cipher, this gadget utilized the rotating wheels for encoding a message. The recipient needed to have another Enigma to read the message. Early computer technology was eventually employed to help break the Enigma cipher.

Cryptography and the Computer Age

The rise of computers saw cryptography become vastly more advanced than ever. In today’s digital age, the science of cryptography has already evolved into symmetric and asymmetric key encryption. Today`s encryption utilizes an algorithm to encrypt data. With symmetric encryption, the same key used by the sender is the same one used by the recipient to decrypt and encrypt the data. 

Asymmetric encryption is an even more secure technique. It can encrypt data using the public key of a recipient and can only decrypt it using the recipient’s private key. One advantage of this is that even if the key is stolen, the data will not be accessed without the private key.

In today’s digital world, online encryption manages the data exchange between web browsers and web servers via SSL/TSL encryption protocol. It employs data requests, different encryption keys and security certificates, making the ancient ciphers seem like child`s play.  

Final thoughts

Cryptography has come a long way and is not likely to stop soon. As long as we need to secure our information and sensitive data, cryptography will continue to advance. Simply put, the history of cryptography is the history of human being`s relentless urge to find better ways to secure communications and protect data.

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