A short history of encryption and its modern day uses
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary lists the 5th meaning of the word cipher as, “A secret manner of writing by any of various methods, intelligible only to those possessing the key (1528).”
Encryption, the use of ciphers, is not new. Far from it. It has been with us for a very long time. I used to say that encryption was traditionally for the four P’s. Princes, Popes, Purveyors and Paramours, since they were the people who had secrets and needed to keep them.
Julius Caesar used encryption to send his instructions to his armies, and the Caesar cipher, one of the earliest recorded ciphers, is named after him.
But the honours for the groundwork to our modern use of cryptography should probably go to the Turkish community for their application of mathematical algorithms (formulae to convert by a mathematical process between ordinary information, called plaintext by the cryptography community, and cipher text, the encrypted information that is impossible to understand without the key) to automate and make routine the business of encrypting and decrypting information.
When Mary, Queen of Scots sent her encrypted messages to raise a revolt against Elizabeth I, the process was very manual, and slow. It took Elizabeth’s code breaker some weeks to figure out what the secret information meant. By comparison, by the time the Germans introduced their Enigma machines (and subsequently the British their computers at Bletchley Park to decrypt them) the process was becoming fully automated, and down to days or just hours.
Today, every PC is equipped with enough powerful mathematically proven encryption engines to process information at many megabytes per minute – something beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors, and little realised by most PC users.