The Code Book

  • by Simon Singh
  • printed in 2000, Anchor Books, New York
  • ISBN:9780385495325
  • $14.00/trade paperback

I have always been interested in codes and ciphers — even as a kid –so I was eager to read The Code Book — especially when I discovered that it dealt with the methods of encryption used in computers.  Mr. Singh’s writing held my interest through the majority of the book, and when I lost interest, it was mainly due to my sparse background in mathematics.

There was a good deal of interesting information regarding the early use of codes and ciphers — how each type of code was developed — who cracked it — how it was improved to foil the cryptanalysts.  The book gives the history of codes and ciphers from all the way back in ancient Egypt to the present and projecting into the future.

There is a long section devoted to WWII Germany’s Enigma Machine.  It describes how Engima was built and how it worked.  Singh tells of the work of the British in their efforts to decode the messages. It is truly amazing that the Allies were able to decode the messages for quite a long time without the Nazi military actually knowing that they had the ability to read the messages.

Alan Turing and his contributions to the project are talked about in a fair amount of detail.  He is a tragic figure in the story.  He had a brilliant mind for math and he was actually the one who put together a machine that would decipher the enigma messages once the key had been found.  He came to imagine what today is the modern day computer and on top of all that, he had the foundations in mind for the software in the machine to actually carry the instructions to make the machine do what was required.  This was at a time when everyone thought the instructions had to be hardwired in with plugs inserted into jacks.

He had a fatal-flaw, however, that he kept secret for a good long time — all the way through to the end of the War: He had homosexual tendencies — he even told a girl that he was dating during the War. Neither of them divulged the information to anyone else, however, and he used his genius to further the British and Allies war effort.

Had the military known this, they would have locked him up because they considered homosexuals to be a security risk.  After the war, his house was burgled and he let it slip to the police that he was a homosexual.  In those days, it was thought that putting a homosexual on hormone treatment would cure him.  Instead, Alan found he was growing impotent and obese.  He went off the drugs and on 7 June 1954, he was found, dead, in his bedroom with a bottle of cyanide that he had been issued during the War.

The last three chapters of this book go into modern day needs of ciphers as they are related to computer usage.  It was in these chapters that I more-or-less got lost — I admit it.  The history contained in those chapters is interesting and we are introduced to the people who have pioneered computer data security — but when it gets into the quantum mechanics of polarized photons going through different masks to register a 1 or a 0, I draw the line. The reading isn’t fun anymore because I would need to take a physics class to really get the full impact of what is being described.

The book is extremely interesting if you have a bent toward history and ciphers.  If you are at all interested in the story behind the British involvement with deciphering the Enigma messages, you’ll find the book worthwhile. It doesn’t delve deeply into any particular area, but makes for good, interesting reading.

Leave a Reply