Codes, Ciphers & Other Cryptic & Clandestine Communication by Fred B. Wrixon is a spectacularly thorough examination of how people communicate in secret. Its subtitle, “making and breaking secret messages from hieroglyphs to the internet,” is a very succinct description of a very verbose and wide-ranging book. To a layperson, Mr. Wrixon’s book could easily apppear to be a textbook from a military academy. It covers everything you’d ever want or need to know about codes and ciphers, in both theory and practice. But there is very few dry spots in his presentation. He smartly weaves history and technical theory together, using specific past examples of secret codes (both successful and not) to illustrate each of his discussions of specific code types.
My father gave me my 1998 edition. He’d discovered the book while doing research for a historical novel about spies in the First World War. (No, he’s not a famous author you’d know.) He thought I’d be as fascinated with it as he was. He was right, but the level of detail is sometimes excessive, and at 700+ pages there is a lot of material here. So, instead of trying to read it cover-to-cover, I often pick up the book and open it at random. Whether he’s discussing how to electronically thwart a phone tap, manufacture a microdot, or include secret meanings in a seemingly innocent letter to a prison convict, Mr. Wrixon manages to be interesting and easy to understand while never talking down to the reader. He also explores the people who’ve broken these codes (or in some cases, didn’t).
Do you know the defined difference between a code, a cipher, and a clandestine message? Thanks to Mr. Wrixon, I do. A code hides words, a cipher hides individual letters (or digits) and clandestine communication hides the existence of the message. If we agree to refer to a secret agent named Bruno as “our German Shepard,” that a code. If we use the alphabetical position of the letters of his name to refer to him as “0218211415,” that’s a cipher. If we tattoo his name to somebody’s scalp and then let their hair grow back to hide it, that’s a clandestine message. If we hide the numeric cipher for “German Shepard” within the code string of a JPEG image, we’re doing all three.
A good deal of this book deals with “official” governmental espionage, but the book examines enough other situations to make the reader aware that secret messages are all over the place, from poker cheats to baseball managers telling a batter to steal second. If you find thinking about that sort of stuff fun, this book will give you lots of fun stuff to think about.