One of the classic true stories in the history of cryptographic
invention is that of J. F. Byrne.
Mr. Byrne was a close friend and fellow student (at Dublin) of James
Joyce. In his work "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" Joyce modeled his
character "Cranley" after Byrne.
In 1918 Byrne devised a code system that he thought amazingly simple
and yet unbreakable. The "machine" used to produce his cipher (which he called
his "Chaocipher") required nothing more than a cigar box and a few odds and
In writing about his invention, Byrne states:
"When I first set out to discover a system for concocting an
indecipherable cipher, I had it clearly in mind that such a system would and should be
universally available, I envisioned, for instance, the utilization of my method and
machine by business men for business communications, and by brotherhoods and social and
religious institutions. I believe that my method and machine would be an invaluable asset
to big religions institutions, as for example the Catholic Church with its world-wide
ramifications. I had, and still have in mind, the universal use of my machine and method
by husband, wife, or lover. My machine would be on hire, as typewriter machines now are,
in hotels, steamships, and, maybe even on trains and airlines, available for anyone
anywhere and at any time. And I believe, too, the time will comeand come
soonwhen my system will be used in the publication of pamphlets and books written in
cipher with will be unreadable except by those who are specially initiated."
Unfortunately, no one of importance took his machine seriously. He
demonstrated it to the head cryptanalysts of the US Signal Corps, but was rejected.
His system was also rejected by the State Department, the Department
of the Navy, and AT&T.
Byrne did not, however, give up. He wrote and published a small
booklet in which he enciphered known texts in his Chaocipher, and defied the world to
break it. Later Byrne published his autobiography, in which he included a lengthy message
in his Chaocipher. He offered to pay $5000 to anyone who could correctly break his cipher.
He sent copies to the American Cryptogram Association, the New York Cipher Society, and to
Norbert Wiener (father of cybernetics), and to other believers in the capabilities of the
electronic calculating machines.
Unfortunately, no one ever claimed the prize, and Byrne died a few
years later, taking his secret to the grave.