“The unsung heroes of Cryptography”

Aaqib Bashir
5 min readAug 25, 2018

Cryptography is full of amazing stories. From the construction of amazing Ciphers to some intriguing cryptanalysis of well known ciphers. History has seen it all. However, there has always been people who weren’t credited for their miraculous contributions over the years due to whatever reasons. Today, it’s time to learn about those unsung heroes of cryptography who dedicated all their life for the love of what they were best known for.

The best and very first techniques of cryptanalysis known as “the frequency analysis” is due to less known ninth century scientist, the author of 290 books in the fields of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics and music. Best known as the “Philosopher of the Arabs”,

Abū Yūsūf Ya’qūb ibn Is-hāq ibn as-Sabbāh ibn as-Sabbāh ibn’omrān ibn Ismaīl al-Kindī

His greatest treatise entitled:

A Manuscript on Deciphering Cryptographic Messages

was rediscovered in 1987 in the Sulaimaniyyah Ottoman Archive in Istanbul. Below is the first page of al-Kindī’s manuscript “On Deciphering Cryptographic Messages”, containing the oldest known description of cryptanalysis by frequency analysis.

Before moving on to the next story. Allow me to quote Sun-Tzu, author of one of the greatest treatise on military strategy “ART OF WAR”. Sun-Tzu stated:

Nothing should be as favourably regarded as intelligence; nothing should be as generously rewarded as intelligence; nothing should be as confidential as the work of intelligence.

Sun-Tzu was familiar with his notion of intelligence which is why with precise measurements he decided to put it this way. Intelligence can be thought of as an abstract concept and putting it into physical existence is mere perseverance, patience and hardwork.

Le Chiffre Indéchiffrable

Le Chiffre Indéchiffrable translated into “The Indecipherable Cipher”. The title was accredited to the “Vigenère Cipher” developed into it’s final form by:

Blaise de Vigenère

The Cipher’s strength lies in using 26 distinct cipher alphabets to encrypt a message. This was achieved by drawing the “Vigenère Square”. Vigenère’s work was actually culminated in his:

Traicté des Chiffres (A Treatise on Secret Writing’)

which was published in 1586. The decipherment of the Vigenère Cipher was accredited to Friedrich Kasiski. However it was Charles Babbage who broke the Vigenère cipher but it was never revealed during his lifetime, because his work was thought to be of no value to British forces in Crimea.

It’ll be unfortunate if i’d have missed to include the German masterpiece by inventor “Arther Scherbius”. Yes! You guessed it right. It’s about the “German Enigma”. The Enigma has standout as the greatest Cryptographic masterpiece ever built. Undoubtedly it is. Scherbius combined a number of ingenious components turning it into a formidable and intricate cipher machine. Though the technicalities of the machine can be found in:

“TheCodebook” by Simon Singh , “Enigma:The Battle for the Code” by Hugh Sebag Montefiore, “Alan Turing:The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges and “Seizing the Enigma” by David Kahn

Since “Alan Turing” is accredited with the one who broke the German Enigma. Very few people know that it were three Polish cryptographers:

Jerzy Rózycki, Marian Rejewski and Henryk Zygalski

who had broken Enigma. Infact they had not just broken Enigma, but had been reading the messages for more than five years in 1932. The youngest of these three cryptographers “Jerzy Rózycki” can be seen in the picture below.

Jerzy Rózycki, who broke Enigma with the other two Polish cryptographers, drowned in 1942 while on his way from Algeria to France.

Talking about the modern cryptography, there won’t be a person in the field of Cryptography or Computer Science who isn’t familiar with the modern day giants:

Whitfield Diffie, Ralph Merkle and Martin Hellman

Everone is familiar with their contribution as the solution to the “Key Distribution Problem” which is regarded as the greatest Cryptographic achievement since the invention of the monoalphabetic cipher, over two thousand years ago. However, there was a brilliant,, exceptional and prodigious talent who had gained a reputation as a “cryptoguru” named :

James Ellis

Ellis’s idea was very similar to those of Diffie, Hellman and Merkle with the exception that the trio had reached the milestone in 1975, while he achieved the same in 1969; which meant that he was several years ahead of them. While he realised that there was a need of a “one-way function”, he tried to experiment with few mathematical functions but didn’t progressed any further because he wasn’t a mathematician. While revealing this idea to his bosses, they were impressed by the idea but unaware of as how to take advantage of it. For like three years, the bright minds at Britain’s GCHQ struggled to find a one-way function. Then in 1973, a new member joined the team by the name:

Clifford Cocks

Cock’s, a recent graduate from the Cambridge with specialization in Nunber theory who knew a little about encryption and other military and diplomatic communications was assigned a mentor to help him through his first weeks at GCHQ. After about six weeks, his mentor “Nick Patterson” told him about the idea for Public-Key Cryptography and the need for a mathematical function that could fit the need. Cocks recall’s:

It took me no more than half an hour from start to finish. I was quite pleased with myself. I thought, “Ooh, that’s nice. I’ve been given a problem and i’ve solved it.”

These are few among those innumerous of the Unsung hereos in the field of cryptography who have made a huge contribution in one way or the other. Their work can’t be overshadowed by what was the demand of the time. Whether it was due to the need of military secrecy or the lack of vision which lead to such and such. Their contribution is still to be acknowledged by us.

While concluding, there’s nothing better then to quote the following:

Real courage is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. Doing the unpopular thing because it’s what you believe, and the heck with everybody.

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Aaqib Bashir

I used to be a Researcher sometime back, now I write code for a living. Backend Engineer