Friday, October 30, 2015
...and All the Ships at Sea
If you think the cap on your smartphone data is annoying, imagine what it was like when you had to pay by the word. In the days when the telegraph defined the state of the art in communications technology it wasn't unusual for customers to compress long messages using a single code word. The secret was using a code book in the possession of both the sender and receiver.
There were dozens of different code books available during the classic era of the 20s and 30s. Some were tailored to specific industries and featured codes that handled things like cargo financing terms or the different grades of kapok fibers. Others were full blown encryption schemes using custom printed, single use pages for secure communications between a company and its agents abroad.
Eveline Houweling has been kind enough to transcribe her personal copy of "The Nautical Telegraph Code Book and Postal Guide for Officers in the Mercantile Marine and All Persons Travelling Abroad", subtitled "Tourists, Passengers, and Foreign Residents Will Find this Work Exceptionally Useful". It's a good example of a period code, dating back to 1920, designed to serve the needs of travelers and those abroad. The book's sole purpose was to allow a single word to convey an entire sentence. Need to purchase insurance? Instead of spending a goodly sum writing "Please effect insurance against all risks for the sum of £--. Sending cash by next mail" in a telegram you simply consult the code book and send the word "Starless".
Using a code book for messages not only adds some verisimilitude to period communications, but provides a good deal of immersiveness as messages are decoded. A telegram containing the words "Amplitude Doctor Padlock Skyward" means nothing without the book. With it, the recipient learns that things are going very badly in the fight against the cult of the Black Wind.