Discover more from Ransomware
Edgar Allan Poe, Cryptography and Cryptocurrency
This post isn’t about ransomware, instead it is about Edgar Allan Poe’s fascination with cryptography. I promise we’ll return to ransomware soon.
Most people associate Edgar Allan Poe with horror: The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Masque of the Red Death are all masterworks of horror that have been presented in every medium over the last 180 years. But, Poe was much more than horror writer, he also wrote detective stories, science fiction stories and he wrote about cryptography.
Thanks for reading Ransomware! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
In fact, in his lifetime, one his most popular short stories was The Gold-Bug. A story about the hunt for buried pirate treasure in South Carolina that can only be found by solving a cryptogram:
Which translates to:
A good glass in the bishop's hostel in the devil's seat forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seventh limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death's-head a bee line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out.
Interestingly, in Poe’s story solving the cryptogram wasn’t enough, the protagonist actually needed to understand the lay of the land in South Carolina to get to the treasure.
The Gold-Bug is what sparked my interest in cryptography at a young age, and I am not alone. While Thomas Jefferson is generally considered the “Father of Cryptography” (a VERY disputed title) in the United States, there is no doubt that Poe popularized the idea of cryptography for the masses (at least in the US).
In fact, in 1936 Chief Signal Officer (and other Father of American Cryptography) William Friedman wrote:
It is a curious fact that popular interest in this country in the subject of cryptography received its first stimulus from Edgar Allan Poe. Should a psychologic association test be made, the word “cipher” would doubtless bring from most laymen the immediate response, “Poe” or “The Gold Bug.1”
In short, as early as the 1840s, Poe had people thinking about cryptography, how to use and challenging them to solve these puzzles.
Friedman spends most of his essay trashing Poe’s cryptography skills, referring to Poe as a “tyro” (beginner or novice) and goes on to compare him to a “conjurer” and even mocks Poe’s preferred cryptogram, the Berryer.
But, there is one thing I think Friedman gets wrong. He quotes Poe from the Graham’s essay:
Few persons can be made to believe that it is not quite an easy thing to invent a method of secret writing which shall baffle investigation. Yet it may be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.
The funny thing is, other than possibly OTP’s, most modern cryptologists believe that there isn’t a a cipher that can be written than can’t be solved, with enough resources. In fact, even though Poe couldn’t predict that Charles Babbage would break Le Chiffre Indéchiffrable - what was then considered an indecipherable code - in 1854 Friedman knew that had been accomplished and still felt it was possible to create an unbreakable cipher.
Hey! Get to the Cryptocurrency Part
What does all of this have to do with Cryptocurrency you ask? In 1849 Poe wrote in a letter to Evert Duyckinck:
If you have looked over the Von Kempelen article which I left with your brother, you will have fully perceived its drift. I mean it as a kind of "exercise," or experiment, in the plausible or verisimilar style. Of course there is not one word of truth in it from beginning to end. I thought that such a style, applied to the gold-excitement, could not fail of effect.
If you aren’t familiar with Poe’s article, Von Kempelen and His Discovery, it is an article published in April of 1849 in the magazine Flag of Our Union about a German scientist who found a way to turn lead into gold, raising the price of lead by 200% in Europe. The article is fictional, but there is no indication in the article that is such (similar to the way often people think War of the Worlds was originally broadcast on radio).
We have to remember that Poe was a writer of his time. According to Terence Whalen
in his paper. The Code for Gold: Edgar Allan Poe and Cryptography, that time consisted of alchemists trying to turn lead into gold and the move from gold and silver as primary forms of currency to bank notes:
In Money, Language, and Thought, Marc Shell offers a major reinterpretation of "The Gold-Bug" based upon the correspondence between the events of the story and the general economic context. "At a time," writes Shell, "when alchemists were trying to transform tin into gold by means of alchemy and financiers were turning paper money into gold by means of the newly widespread institution of paper money, Edgar Allan Poe was a poor author who could only wish to exchange his literary papers for money.2
The Gold Bug was written at a time of uncertainty about the changing nature of money. A time when a lot of con-men were offering solutions that weren’t real but there also wasn’t much trust in existing financial institutions.
Whalen, boils the essence of The Gold Bug down to this:
The treasure chest, which contains "no American money,” further indicates the central exchange of the story: not paper for paper, but code for gold.
My emphasis added.
The Gold Bug is readily available online (it is also available in comic book form, which is how I first read it), I’d recommend reading (or re-reading) it and you can start to pick out the similarities between Poe’s time and ours, and how the story could easily be released today as an allegory for cryptocurrency.
Friedman, William F. “Edgar Allan Poe, Cryptographer.” American Literature, vol. 8, no. 3, 1936, pp. 266–80. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2919837. Accessed 5 Oct. 2023.
Whalen, Terence. “The Code for Gold: Edgar Allan Poe and Cryptography.” Representations, no. 46, 1994, pp. 35–57. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2928778. Accessed 5 Oct. 2023.