Early Cryptography: Leather Belts and Walking Sticks

Earlier today I posted a crypto challenge to my followers on Twitter. The encrypted message was this:

wtrhhoagutoghdhawt

The history of cryptography is a subject that I personally find fascinating, mostly because it extends much further into the past than most people know. The cipher used to encrypt the message above was taken from the Spartans. Back in the day (600-400 BC), the ancient Greeks used runners to transport messages between military units and their central command. Knowing that the messengers were in constant danger of being intercepted by enemy forces, they created an interesting form of cryptology.

Each runner wore a leather belt. On the inside of the belt, the message was printed in an encrypted form. Example: wtrhhoagutoghdhawt. Anyone that captured the messenger could steal the message but they could not understand what it said. This is where the “walking stick” comes in.

Once the runner reached the recipient of the message, the leather belt would be wrapped around the stick (or Scytale) and the message could be read thusly:

W T R
H H O
A G U
T O G
H D H
A W T

or:
WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT

(side note: this was the first message ever transmitted by electronic means)

Congrats to John Dugan at Coroutine for being the first twitter follower to answer correctly!

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