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Aug 19, 2012

Books: Reading Again “The Codebreakers”

I have tried in this book to write a serious history of cryptology” - David Kahn

I first had the chance to open this book by David Kahn in 1972. It was the original 1967 hard copy edition, but my hectic daily work schedules of those days  didn’t allow for any systematic study of the 1100+ pages that Time Magazine called at the time "Perhaps the best and most complete account of cryptography yet published."
In 1973 David Kahn urged by readers and publishers came up with a paperback edition comprising about a third of the original, and at a much reduced price tag. As the author writes in a Note on the Abridged Version: “In cutting the book, I retained mainly stories about how codebreaking has affected history, particularly in World War II, and major names and stages in the history of cryptology. I eliminated all source notes and most of the technical matter, as well as material peripheral to strict codebreaking such as biographies, the invention of secondary cypher systems, and miscellaneous uses of various systems “.

I bought the new abridged edition first published in Great Britain in paperback by Sphere Books Ltd in 1973.  This paperback offered a gripping reading experience for many travelling days and a few nights, and it still rests in my bookshelf. I decided lately to go over it again, and I can now say that “The Codebreakers” really remains an unsurpassed detailed account of cryptography, and a fascinating reading not limited to the crypto professionals group, but also to the general public with an interest in the history of cryptology.
The book does not cover technical trends of today, and must not be seen as a technical reference manual for contemporary cryptanalysis. Throughout its 460 pages the author avoids any technical jargon and gives his story in simple language to make the book fascinating and captivating to the last chapter. In the Introduction very rightfully titled A Few Words, there is a presentation of the basic vocabulary and  the terminology used throughout the book, followed by 20 Chapters, suggestions for further reading, and an Index. Although at the time of its first publication the book was considered as the most definitive account of the history of cryptography,  the explosive advances  in technology and mathematics today have completely transformed the way modern cryptosystems are designed and implemented. However, The Codebreakers written 45 years ago always remain a time-honored work.

This is a classic you must read, and both the full edition and the abridged paperback can be easily found and ordered online. Even a Kindle edition is now available to download for those who prefer  the  digital  reading experience.

David Kahn photo source: Wikipedia

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