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The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  1,363 ratings  ·  59 reviews
The magnificent, unrivaled history of codes and ciphers—how they're made, how they're broken, and the many and fascinating roles they've played since the dawn of civilization in war, business, diplomacy, and espionage—updated with a new chapter on computer cryptography and the Ultra secret.

Man has created codes to keep secrets and has broken codes to learn those secrets si
Hardcover, 1200 pages
Published December 5th 1996 by Scribner (first published January 1st 1963)
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Start your review of The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet
☘Misericordia☘ ~ The Serendipity Aegis ~  ✺❂❤❣
Q: ...Zimmermann telegram...
It would not require much wit for the Americans to surmise that England might also be supervising the code telegrams of another neutral: the United States, which, like Sweden, was working as a messenger boy for the Germans and had, in fact, transmitted this very message. This realization would both embarrass and anger the United States and would not conduce to pro-Allied feelings. ...
Suddenly, Americans in the middle of the continent who could not get excited about t
Nov 16, 2010 rated it it was amazing
The definitive book on the history of cryptography. Although even with this revised edition, the modern cryptography is clearly not the focus of this book, Bruce Schneier is probabbly better for this. If you are looking for a different view on several historical events, one focused on cryptography, this book is for you.

Awesome barely described it for me. I read a cut-down translated version of the 1967 edition and reading this revised version was like rediscovering the book itself.
Rod Van Meter
Oct 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What a tome! I feel like I just finished the Bible. It's a good fraction as long and covers an even bigger fraction of human history. Took me six weeks of pretty steady reading (and getting an upper body workout just carrying around the hardback library copy). It's pretty much four books in one -- classical secrets; codes in the era of telegraphs and WWI wireless; WWII and the Cold War; and miscellanea including rum runners and the like. (I gotta say, I wasn't expecting the decoding of Linear B ...more
Arthur Sperry
Feb 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a very interesting and detailed book about cryptography and the cryptographers who have worked with codes and code breaking over the years. I loved the level of detail and the many fascinating anecdotes that are included.
Vagabond of Letters, DLitt
A definitive history of pre-computer cryptography (nothing newer than the Enigma is covered, but the 'deciphering' of lost languages is) which has no theory or practice - it is history of the people and events alone. Writing is somewhat dry. Tarnished additionally by entire paragraphs being sprinkled through the work for no other purpose than to impugn the Bible as 'com[ing] from the merely human minds of a pagan civilization' (p. 914) which 'held the world in bondage to superstition' (p. 913) a ...more
Jan 19, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Those curious about codes, code-breaking, and information theory
I read this book a a few years ago. It's fairly long and in places very technical. Translation: lot's of long and good examples of various codes and ciphers. It also clarified the distinction between a "code" and a "cipher", which i f you are like me, you probably thought were the same thing.

Because of it's comprehensiveness and length, it's a somewhat "daunting" book to start, but the author knows his topic, writes well, and includes lots of interesting samples and uses of both codes and cipher
Rishabh Jain
Mar 30, 2020 rated it liked it
This is a good book. However, I just felt that I had conceived it to be a different kind of book in my mind. I expected more technical information and novel applications. While the book does contain that, it's more so an account of major instances where cryptology played an integral part, something that the book did promise to do. It highlights key moments relevant to cryptology across the ages, has a fascinating account of the tales and the way situations revolving around key cryptologic breakt ...more
William Schram
A very comprehensive history of hidden writing, codes, ciphers and other such things. It goes pretty well into depth with how it describes ancient codes and ciphers, how new ones were made and how they were then broken.

It doesn't cover internet security or anything, since this edition of this book was published in 1967. So it is still in the midst of the Cold War. Interestingly, most code breaking was done by linguists and language experts, but that eventually turned into mathematicians.

It doesn
Richard Bean
Feb 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Very comprehensive account of cryptology up to about the mid 1960s.

Of course it doesn't cover, say, public key cryptography or explain the Crypto AG story, and some of the remarks about homosexuality are very dated now; but it has great technical detail. One quibble is that the Wheatstone cipher (1854 document) is not explained in the text at all.
Jun 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is a must read for describing the evolution of secret intelligence gathering and codebreaking in practice throughout the world. The art form of applying cryptology, and its counter part cyber security is carefully and simply explained.

A true classic in the field. Endorsed by thousands of professionals. Over eleven hundred pages of brilliant writings
Nov 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Not absolutely thorough (obviously much has been written on the NSA since this) and some details can be nitpicked at but this is definitely essential for anyone thinking about the history of espionage and the various esoteric arts of secrecy. James Joyce is even brought in!
Josh N.
Sep 03, 2019 rated it liked it
Fairly standard and anecdotal crypto history overview without the interest of Simon Singh's take on the same topic. I guess it's ok if you haven't seen anything else, but many better books out there
May 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
My college cryptography class wasn't this good. It dives deep yet remains compelling.
May 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Read sample only. Very interesting, but 1200 pages is too much for right now
Kaspars Laizans
Mar 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
A wonderful insight on cryptanalysis and its influence on human history, especially during World Wars. An interesting siurce of trivia on hidden side of political decisionmaking
Jan 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: cryptographers, historians
This is too big a book to review comprehensively so I'll restrict myself to dot points:

* Every serious book on cryptography cites it, except the ones written before. This is not an accident.

* No one is going to attempt a detailed history of cryptology (notice the different word) like this for a very long time. Although I'm sure parts of it need updating as archaeology and historians break new ground, that's going to be a job few will be up for. We know a lot more about WW2 cryptology for instanc
Ed Terrell
Dec 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014, cryptology
The analyses of codes started at time immemorial. The Codebreakers is encyclopedic if not complete and Khan's knowledge is both thorough and entertaining. He is not the first to point out that the greatest codes ever made can and have been brought to their knees through persistence, good luck, and very often the ability to capitalize on human foibles. Solving ciphers is a mix of sweat and inspiration; creating them a remarkable affirmation of human ingenuity. Cryptography is essentially a mathem ...more
Nov 17, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book is comprehensive. At times boring, at times fascinating, it gives an in depth look at codes and code breaking through history. The book was published in the 1960s so the WWII coverage is lacking especially in regards to Ultra (this may have been corrected in a later edition) and the latest chapters chronologically, especially the one on the NSA should be 10 pages long, not the 30-40 that they are. In addition the author has a very triumphal tone with an Anglo-centric stance periodically ...more
Dec 21, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is some weaving between storytelling and record keeping in this compendium that makes some of it harder to read, but it is packed full of fascinating stories, cryptography, and characters. I was distracted by frequent sexist stereotypes, but important female historical figures seemed to get pretty good coverage in spite of any cultural bias against them. The end is rushed compared to the rest, and the declaration that cryptography has come to close with RSA and other public key encryption ...more
Oct 11, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Those with interests in military history, game theory, math, linguistics.
This book contains some fascinating material. The opeining chapter is particularly gripping, dealing with the decryption of the Japanese diplomatic service's codes and ciphers during the run up to Pearl Harbor. The main plotline of the book follows the development of cryptology from antiquity up to the mid 1950's. The parts of this covering about 1300-1940 are very good.
Unfortunately, the beginning deals with some very arcane topics, like Hebrew lyrical poetry. The last few chapters are very da
Vasil Kolev
Dec 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, tech
A comprehensive book on the history of cryptography and cryptanalysis, from the earliest known cases up to somewhat the second world war. It's really dated by now, there's a lot of stuff that has shown in the meantime, and some parts of the history are almost glossed over (for example, there's just a small bit about Alan Turing, which is unexcusable).

There's also a big problem with the flow of the book, as the same period is repeated again later, and not from an entirely different point of view
John Bickelhaupt
Jan 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to John by: Found in used bookstore.
Kahn wrote "The Codebreakers" in the 1960's. An update was added, I believe in the 90's, that discusses the entry of cryptography into the public sphere, largely because of the Internet, but this new section is short, comprising less than twenty pages. Information concerning British and American decoding of German and Japanese communication during World War II that has been declassified since the original edition has not been added. Despite all these drawbacks, this is still the best history of ...more
Marne Wilson
Nov 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
I spent a whole summer reading this book when I was laid up in bed with a bum ankle and a heating pad. Besides telling more than I ever thought there was to know about the history of secret communications, it also taught me a lesson on how to write something both scholarly and entertaining. When I was in library school, my professors often told me that my papers were not just well-researched, but also very readable. (One called my 15-page tome on the history of the Copyright Clearance Center "a ...more
Jan 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
A hefty but good read. It's sometimes a bit dry, but still manages to be very interesting. I would mention that the "updated version" is barely updated - the previous sections still being obviously from the 1960's (social norms have changed, and the odd homophobic or misogynistic throw away lines are oddly jarring against a background that has remained very fresh), and the newer section is extremely short, even taking into account it was updated in 1996 and a lot with the internet and NSA has ha ...more
Nov 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to BarbaraNathalie by: I stumbled onto it.
I find codes fascinating, and this complete overview is mind boggling to someone like me. Still it amazes me that individuals who are remarkable at deciphering codes exist. Their minds must be advanced beyond anything I can comprehend. As I repeat myself, I am reminded that the whole thrust of breaking a code would convolute my brain and give me an extreme headache just for the attempt. Bravo to anyone who can do it, and this book is highly recommended to anyone who finds the mystery of hidden w ...more
Josiah Lau
Oct 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book was absolutely riveting.
I loved the in-depth exploration of not only the history of codes and ciphers, cryptology and cryptanalysis, but also the related areas of linguistics, information theory as well as the unraveling of ancient texts and inscriptions. The logic, creativity and rigor that goes into cryptanalysis and the understanding of ancient records is simply astonishing.
10/10 for this book, which although well over a thousand pages long was a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Chris Gager
Feb 21, 2012 rated it liked it
I was interested in this book in the mid-sixties because I was in the Navy and working for the Naval Security Group which worked for NSA. Not much was publicly known about NSA back then and you don't see much about it nowadays either. So... I don't think I read the whole thing, just the NSA part. Obviously the edition I read had nothing about the internet or cell-phones. Date read is approximate.
May 18, 2011 rated it liked it
There are two things you need to know about this book. One, it is "comprehensive" which means looooong. It achieves this length by talking about anything and everything vaguely related to cryptography, even including the hypothetical reception of alien signals from outer space. Two, only roughly 2% of the book is about modern (computer/internet) cryptography.
Aug 10, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned, given-away
ABANDONED. Well written and interesting in places, but the opening chapters on Pearl Harbour are really tedious (and it looks like we're to be treated to yet more of the same later in the book). Includes such 'balanced' comments as "It became increasingly evident that Nippon's march of aggression would eventually collide with American rectitude".
Jan 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Took a while but solidly worth it. You sort of realize by the end that you accept as tacit, that all codes can be broken, despite a couple of claims otherwise in the book.

Interesting that most of the book was written (and not updated) since before the unsealing of Enigma, and it foreshadows a great deal of the Snowden era NSA.
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David Kahn is a historian who writes on military codebreaking. He earned a D.Phil in modern German history from Oxford University in 1974 under the supervision of the then-Regius professor of modern history, Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

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