The Tragic Story of J.F. Byrne

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 ends.

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 come—and come soon—when 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.

 

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