I have always been crazy for codes, fascinated by cryptograms and ciphers. When I was in fourth grade, Dayna Ferrer and I devised codes for each other and passed encrypted notes in class. I don’t remember anything about the content of those notes, but I have fond memories of designing my own methods for encryption and cracking the codes Dayna dreamed up for me.
You will rarely find me without a puzzle book by my side. Words, numbers, symbols—they’re all like candy to me. I fall asleep almost every night with a clue from a cryptic crossword on my mind. Sometimes I solve it just before I drop off to sleep. Other times, the answer comes to me when I wake up. And sometimes, the answer eludes me for days.
I love every minute.
The seduction of secrecy
The itch to discover hidden things is inherent in us as humans. It manifests across the spectrum from healthy curiosity to intrusive voyeurism. I prefer to believe that my preoccupation with puzzles keeps my mind agile and alive. I consider myself inordinately blessed to have a job which involves solving mysteries—and creating them.
The history of codes goes back millennia. There has always been a need for covert communication—the passing of vital information and the danger of it falling into the wrong hands. Codes and ciphers evolved to fill this need and the evolution continues today with as much fervor as ever.
In 1470, Leon Battista Alberti described a cipher mechanism made up of two concentric, rotating discs. As kids, many of us found a modern knockoff in our cereal boxes—the coveted decoder ring.
Built into our human culture
Have you ever written a secret message in lemon juice? Used a foreign language with your spouse to hide your meaning in front of the kiddos? Sent hand signals from behind home plate in a baseball game?
All, common occurrences in modern life. All, harking back to the use of code. These—and many other examples—are part of our human culture.
In June of 1860, the Army Signal Corps was formed to use a system of flag and torch movements to send messages that could be seen by friend and foe. Only those with the key to the code could decipher the meaning.
Slaves in the American south communicated by the way they hung the laundry and the songs they sang.
A long-time favorite topic of mine is Bletchley Park. There will always be a battle between the makers and breakers.
It’s all around us
Examples of the vital role of codes and ciphers are everywhere in our history, literature, and pop culture. From Dan Brown books like The DaVinci Code and The Lost Symbol, to Ken Follett’s classic, The Key To Rebecca. We see it in movies like The Imitation Game, Codebreaker, The Last Jedi, Mercury Rising, Sneakers, and A Beautiful Mind.
Encryption is what keeps our financial and personal information secure on the internet and protects our privacy. We take advantage of coded messages every day.
It’s a fascinating subject with virtually never-ending sources of inspiration. As a writer of suspense fiction, I can’t say enough about it!
How about you? Do you see codes and ciphers in your everyday life? Do you enjoy puzzles, solving mysteries, uncovering secrets? Tell us about it in the comments.