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Life, Liberty and Message Encryption

Our July 4th sendoff: Founding Fathers tech

Ben Franklin stole the thunder (er, the lightning?) as the most famous entrepreneur amongst the Founding Fathers. He created bifocals, the lightning rod and even the flexible urinary catheter. But it was Thomas Jefferson who built a technology to solve a problem that’s still on everyone’s mind: communication privacy.

Jefferson was serving as Secretary of State under George Washington when he became bothered by his reliance on unsecure messages and messengers. So he built the so-called “wheel cipher” (also known as the “Jefferson Disk”), which was sort of a mechanical Burn Note.

A wooden cylinder, it allowed you to encode and decode messages with a system of 26 rotating disk pieces, each containing the alphabet. The message was spelled out on the wheel then coded by grabbing a garbled message from, say, the line above. It was then physically scrambled up by rotating the disks and/or re-ordering them altogether. The recipient would reassemble the thing in the predefined order and spell out the garbled message, then hunting for the one line that made sense.

And it was a hack with some longevity. The wheel cipher was later commercialized and used, in one form or another, by the US military up to World War II.

You can actually give it a spin (literally) with this online simulator.

Now go (enjoy your July) forth fourth.


A cipher sent to Jefferson in 1801 by friend Robert Patterson, a math professor at Penn, remained undeciphered until 36 year old math PhD and professional code-breaker Lawren Smithline solved it in 2009.