The History of Cryptography

Posted on November 19, 2018

By Natalie Lord

The crypto world has taken centre stage of late, with many believing it to be new to the scene. But cryptography, in one form or another, has been around for centuries.

The word cryptography is a combination of the Ancient Greek word kryptos meaning “hidden” or “secret” and the word graphein, meaning “to write” or “study.” Cryptography is the study and practice of techniques for the purpose of secure communication. The first use of the term cryptograph dates back to the 19th century where it can be found in “The Gold-Bug,” a novel by Edgar Allan Poe.

Modern cryptography uses sophisticated mathematical algorithms and secret keys to both encrypt and decrypt data. Its most common use is in constructing and analysing protocol that prevent persons from being able to read private messages, but it’s also used in various forms of information security like data confidentiality, authentication and data integrity. It’s widely incorporated in the disciplines of physics, communication science, mathematics, computer science and electrical engineering. In day-to-day life cryptography is utilised in chip-based payment cards, computer passwords, military communications and digital currencies.

The use of codes and ciphers to protect secrets dates back thousands of years. The earliest finding of cryptography was in non-standard hieroglyphs which were carved into the wall of a tomb in about 1900BCE from the Old Kingdom of Egypt. It is thought that these were attempts at mystery or amusement as opposed to serious attempts at secret communication.

Hieroglyphs on the wall, Kom Ombo temple

The earliest findings of cryptography were hieroglyphs in ancient Egypt. 

However, a collection of clay tablets from Mesopotamia dated at around 1500BCE were found encrypted with a craftsman’s recipe for pottery glaze. In around 500 to 600BCE Hebrew scholars were found to have used simple mono-alphabetic substitution ciphers. And in India in around 400 to 200BCE the art of understanding writing in cypher and the writing of words in an unusual manner was documented in the Kama Sutra to enable lovers to communicate.

In Classical times the Greeks are said to have known about ciphers with steganography also first recorded. Steganography being hiding even the existence of a message so as to keep it confidential. One example, from Herodotus, was a message that was tattooed on a slave’s shaved head and concealed under the newly-grown hair. More modern examples include the use of digital watermarks, invisible ink and microdots.

Up until the last few decades cryptography was used relatively simply with methods of encryption that used pen and paper or basic mechanical aids. However, in the early 20th century the invention of more complex machines allowed more efficient and sophisticated encryption, such as the Enigma crypto-system used by the German military during the Second World War.


The Enigma machine was the most sophisticated cryptographic system of its age during WWII

With the advance of electronics and computing schemes have become increasingly complex and elaborate. This complexity has enabled cryptography to be utilised with greater prevalence in the financial markets in particular. In recent years, we have seen the evolvement of numerous crypto currencies and digital exchanges. To date there are now over 4,000 cryptocurrencies in existence.

Next week we look at Cryptography in the Financial Arena




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