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.


Pat G said...

Useful post


CoastConFan said...

What a great post about telegraphic codes. I really like all that preVictorian technology. Mary Shelly would be proud of us.

The electro-magnetic telegraph was a massive communications breakthrough from its inception nearly two centuries back until about 50 years ago when planet wide telephone coverage began, thanks to satellite communications. Telegraphy, when aided with the new wireless (that new Marconi thing) at the beginning of the 20th century meant you were no longer tied to wires. That meant all you needed was a broadcast station, which could be moved or even moving such as on a ship.

A massive set of links to nearly 200 telegraphic codes for flags and other non-electronic methods as well as for classic electro telegraph

More telegraph codes, many for non electric means

PDF of the 1880 ABC telegraphic code

PDF article about telegraph codes and their uses

A large listing of telegraphic codes, some for radio, a few with links

The Civil War Era 92 code

Anonymous said...

Of course, governments had their own encryption schemes and codes, too, which immediately calls to mind the famous Zimmerman telegram:

Raven said...

For that matter, fans of Terry Pratchett's Discworld will recall its recent communications breakthrough, the multiple-levered-semaphore line known as "the Clacks". They, and readers interested in trivia of the Napoleonic Wars, might want to look at the probable real-life inspiration of the Clacks, the code system for Britain's "first optical telegraph" developed by the Rev. Lord George Murray for the Admiralty.

(Now THAT could be built as a physical prop, or props, for LARP use!... or a tabletop text display unit? Or consider doing it as screen software like the "binary clock"?)

Raven said...

Prior Propnomicon posts propounding parallel propositions:

Telegraph and Telegram Codes

1930 Telegram [comments]

Alysson Rowan said...

For your delight and edification, I bring you this from Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

Captain Vincent strongly suspected that despite all its electronics the ship was worth more sunk than afloat, and would probably go down as the most perfectly pinpointed wreck in nautical history.

By inference, this also meant that he was more valuable dead than alive.

He sat at his desk quietly leafing through International Maritime Codes, whose six hundred pages contained brief yet pregnant messages designed to transmit the news of every conceivable nautical eventuality across the world with the minimum of confusion and, above all, cost.

What he wanted to say was this:

Was sailing SSW at position 33°N 47° 72'W. First Mate, who you may recall was appointed in New Guinea against my wishes and is probably a head-hunter, indicated by signs that something was amiss. It appears that quite a vast expanse of seabed has risen up in the night. It contains a large number of buildings, many of which appeared pyramid-like in structure. We are aground in the courtyard of one of these. There are some rather unpleasant statues. Amiable old men in long robes and diving helmets have come aboard the ship and are mingling happily with the passengers, who think we organized this. Please advise.

His questing finger moved slowly down the page, and stopped. Good old International Codes. They'd been devised eighty years before, but the men in those days had really thought hard about the kind of perils that might possibly be encountered on the deep.

He picked up his pen and wrote down:

Translated, it meant: "Have found Lost Continent of Atlantis. High Priest has just won quoits contest."

Raven said...

P.S. 33°N 47° 72'W mapped, so you can avoid it: N-S between the southern tip of Greenland and the mouth of the Amazon, E-W between Charleston S.C., and Casablanca, Morocco.