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  • Lara-Johanna Pirk

The History of Secret Writing


Nowadays cryptography is known all around the world. It has been used for countless reasons over the years, ranging from newspaper articles to personal reasons to communication in World War II. The first documented example of cryptography was the Caesar cipher. Before this, there was a different type of secret writing called steganography. This means that instead of changing the message so others cannot understand it, you hide the message.

There are many examples of this incredibly early on. The earliest account of steganography dates back to Herodotus, ‘the father of history’ according to the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero. In “The Histories,” Herodotus talked about the conflict between Greece and Persia. He claims that the art of secret writing is what saved the Greeks from being conquered by the Persians. The king of the Persians spent five years building a secret army and was soon ready to launch a surprise attack had it not been for Demaratus. This Greek had been exiled but still had some loyalty to his country. He witnessed the building of this army and decided to send a message. Demaratus scraped off the wax from a wooden folding Tablet, carved his message into the wood and then put wax on top again. This way it would have no problems with guards and would not be discovered and read. The use of steganography to get the message across without being seen was especially important here. Another example were the ancient Chinese. They wrote messages on fine silk, which were then scrunched into tiny balls and covered in wax. The messenger would then put the ball of wax in their mouth.

There are problems with these techniques though. They can easily be found if you look closely and if they are found, they are not secret anymore and anyone can read them. This is why people tended to use cryptography and even combined steganography with cryptography.

An example of cryptography were the ciphers of Mary Queen of Scots. She used them to talk with her followers about the assassination of Queen Elizabeth. In the end, the ciphers were broken, and she was found guilty in the trial against her. She was then executed in 1586.

Much of the older history of secret writing was used for war or violence as seen in the examples above. Nowadays, most cryptography is used for security reasons on electronic devices. It is important in our everyday life and has developed over thousands of years.

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