Codes and Ciphers from the Renaissance to Today

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 14

It's a striking comment that occurs late in this podcast—and by the time you hear it, you may well agree: "Without Bacon and Shakespeare, we might not have won the war in the Pacific," says Bill Sherman, head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum and professor of Renaissance studies at the University of York.

Rebecca Sheir, host of our Shakespeare Unlimited series, talks with Sherman about the flowering of codes, ciphers, and secret message systems during the Renaissance—including a brilliant cipher devised by Francis Bacon—and their surprising influence on modern cryptography.

As Sherman explains, William Friedman, the top US cryptographer whose team broke the Japanese diplomatic code before World War II, had once been a junior staffer on a team that sought to find Bacon's real-life cipher embedded in the plays of Shakespeare (a once-popular notion that he and his wife and fellow cryptographer Elizebeth later debunked).

That early exposure to Renaissance cryptography shaped Friedman's career, as he soon became the founder of modern American cryptography. Listen to learn more about why you might say that Bacon and Shakespeare—through their influence on Friedman—did indeed help to win the war.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © November 5, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Not Single Spies, But in Battalions," was produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Recorded by Toby Schreiner.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. This podcast is called, "Not Single Spies, But in Battalions."

In it, we look at new research done here at the Folger. Its subject, and the subject of this podcast, is spies. The need to know what your enemies are doing is as old as human animosity, and that goes back pretty far. But surprisingly, as you'll hear, the principal tools of spycraft, including ones we still use today, reached new heights during the time of Shakespeare. Ciphers, concealed writing, codes, invisible ink, and writing about them flourished, like so many other things we take for granted today, during the time of the English Renaissance.

Here to talk about all this is Bill Sherman, a professor of Renaissance studies at the University of York in York, England, and head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Bill has also been an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow here at the Folger. He's interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.


SHEIR: So, Bill, this idea of ciphers, you know, making one set of letters or symbols stand in for another set of letters, that idea goes way back, right? Isn't there something called a "Caesar Cipher" that goes back to Julius Caesar?

SHERMAN: Absolutely. It goes way back to ancient Greek and Roman military strategy. It's even mentioned in the Bible. So, it's known to ancient Greece and Rome, but it doesn't seem to be a systematic practice, things that people write about and write textbooks about, or invent machines for, until the Renaissance period.

SHEIR: What would you say were some of the factors that led to the changes in how information was gathered and used then?

SHERMAN: Well, there are a couple of big factors. The first is just technology, and the fact that you suddenly have so much more communication, partly thanks to the birth of printing, the invention of the printing press, and partly the kinds of systematic education that lead to a growth in literacy, and eventually, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the birth of a postal service. You start to get to the point where people both are able to communicate much more widely, but they also want to prevent other people from reading things that are only for certain eyes. So, I think that's one of the most important things, is just the technological invention that allows so much more communication to happen requires the flip side, or the mirror, which is the secrecy or the control.

Okay, the second thing is social or political factors, and there are a bunch of big changes that happened in this period. Maybe the most obvious one is the birth of a systematic diplomatic network. And so, you've got the first period, in the 15th century, when many European countries have resident ambassadors and resident diplomats, and they, for obvious reasons, want to prevent the enemy from reading whatever it is they want to keep secret. The other one that, for social and political factors, is absolutely crucial, is religion, and the war of religion that starts around the Protestant Reformation. So, in the 1530s, in particular, when England has its break with Rome, you have a massive Cold War really, between Protestants and Catholics, and that raises the stakes just enormously, and creates a whole network of spies and informers and double agents and agents provocateurs and all of those things, but you also have systematic uses of ciphers for communication.

SHEIR: Now, Bill, we mentioned in the introduction to this interview that you're a fellow at the Folger, so I guess you found out that the Folger has a lot of books on cryptology. Did that surprise you?

SHERMAN: Yeah. Well, the Folger has a lot of books, period.

SHEIR: Of course. [LAUGH]

SHERMAN: We think of it, of course, as dominated by Shakespeare, and indeed, the collected works of Shakespeare, known as the First Folio, and it is the great collection of rare books about Shakespeare and the First Folio. But really, Folger and his successors set about to gather a great library that would recover the world of Shakespeare, and almost any aspect of the world of Shakespeare was touched by communication and by secret communication. And that's what's so interesting, is that I don't think Folger set out to collect cryptography, but because cryptography was involved in so many areas and so many famous people... I mean, the pioneers in the field, the first known treatise on cryptography is by Leon Battista Alberti. So to collect the Renaissance is, almost by default, to end up collecting quite a lot of stuff about cryptography. But as it happens, the Folger now has, along with the Library of Congress across the street, I would say, the best collection of first editions of books in this field in the world.

SHEIR: You mentioned the Renaissance or "Renaissance," am I saying it in the correct British way?

SHERMAN: Yeah. Just say Renaissance, please. Yeah. We’ll go with America.

SHEIR: So, speaking of that, Sir Francis Bacon is actually a name that comes up when you're talking about cryptography. What was his connection there?

SHERMAN: Yeah. Well, Francis Bacon is credited with writing the first English text on ciphers. He's credited with many things, including the invention of scientific method and really the importation and invention of the essay form in English. So, a really, really important intellectual figure.

Well, he, in his teens, was posted to Paris and lived with the ambassador in Paris, the English ambassador to France. And in that context, he came across the way ciphers were being used in diplomatic circles and came up with a really brilliant systematic way of using just two letters, A and B, or two types of anything that could be represented by A and B, to make anything ciphered. And so, again, this was the idea of, his exact phrase, of "making anything signify anything." That using A's and B's, or, you know, black and white, or apple and orange, or anything that could be converted into a clear system of two things, can be made into an alphabetical message or to cover an alphabetical message.

And so Bacon, in 1605, in a very famous text called The Advancement of Learning, writes only a couple pages about how ciphers work. He expands it in a later edition in 1623, and that becomes the basis, not only for most of what goes on to be developed in cryptography, but, because it's a binary code, it actually is credited with being the beginning of the digital age that leads to computers.


SHERMAN: Yeah. It's big. So, Bacon comes after, about a century and a half after the first treatise on cryptography, which is in Italy in 1466, but in England, he is the first one who's credited with developing this. And he encounters it in a political context, in the context of the French embassy, and he develops it in an intellectual context, which is to think about how you can, with maximum speed and maximum secrecy, communicate at a distance.

SHEIR: Now it's fascinating, because the study of Bacon's contribution to this science actually brings us back to Shakespeare in an odd way—through a man who was a reader at the Folger and also a spy. Can you tell us about Colonel William F. Friedman?

SHERMAN: Sure. He's not just a spy. He's really the father of modern cryptography in many ways. In 1916, he's a plant genetics PhD student in Cornell, and he sort of hits a dead end, and his supervisor says, “I've got a job for you out of Chicago.” And he is hired for the next four years by a man named Colonel Fabyan. And Fabyan, George Fabyan, is a very wealthy Chicago area textile merchant, who sets up a sort of a freelance think tank for experimental learning. And he does so explicitly in the model of Francis Bacon, and he's interested in the kinds of things that Bacon is interested in, and he says, “Okay, we're going to specialize in two areas for now. We’re going to specialize in sound, the science of acoustics, and we're going to specialize in the science of communication and, in particular, ciphers.”

And in the cipher division, he gets extremely interested in what was then the hot theory that Francis Bacon, rather than Shakespeare, was the author of the First Folio plays. So, the great theory that Bacon had authored Shakespeare's works was explored with a passion and a technical precision at this place, it's called Riverbank Laboratories, just outside Chicago, that is hard to believe now. And so he hired Friedman to assist the leading advocate of the theory that Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays. Her name was Elizabeth Wells Gallup, and Gallup was running wild with this theory, based on the fact that Bacon himself had written the first guide to ciphers in English. In fact, the very year that the First Folio was published, it was published. And so, she goes looking for Bacon's type of cipher in Shakespeare's works, for evidence that Bacon wrote the plays.

So, Friedman goes as her research assistant. And at that point, this is 1916, the US starts to get quite active in approaching participation in World War I, and the US government does not yet have a cipher bureau. And so, a lot of freelance cipher work is being done by other agencies or other people, and this group, Fabyan's group at Riverbank Laboratories, did an enormous amount of decryption of military work, military ciphers, and also of teaching of officers who are headed off to participate in World War I.

Now, Friedman becomes absolutely the master. Friedman is roped in as an assistant, and soon becomes the master. He almost immediately loses faith in this idea that Bacon might have written Shakespeare's plays, but he does not lose faith in the extraordinary world of secret communication that Bacon's writings open up. And in fact, he, I would say, that he continues to have Bacon as his hero through his whole life, and Bacon's great aphorism or axiom, "Knowledge is power," is the very first thing that I know that Friedman encrypted, and it was on his tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery, when he died.

So, while Friedman is doing all of this teaching for officers headed over to participate in World War I, he's in effect creating the first systematic introduction to the subject in the form of both a curriculum, so he's teaching classes, and writings, he writes a whole series of writings, now called "The Riverbank Publications," which lay the foundations for the science, more or less as it is still practiced today. They're considered to be the founding papers in the history of military cryptography. So he then goes into government service, moves to Washington, DC, eventually works, of course, for the National Security Agency, once that’s created. But during World War II, he is head of the team that breaks the Japanese code. So, without Bacon and Shakespeare, we might not have won the war in the Pacific, at least, if not the whole war.

SHEIR: So Bill, what do you come away from all of this thinking? Is that what impresses you most about it? The fact that we have this amazing connection between Bacon, Shakespeare, and the war?

SHERMAN: That's one of the things that I come away thinking. Another one is just how much continuity there is between the 16th century and the 20th. We think of someone like Friedman as a great innovator. He's someone who's bound up with, you know, all kinds of things that we see is quintessentially modern, but he got them through an almost Alice Through the Looking Glass -like encounter with the early modern. And the techniques he develops, and the agencies like an NSA or CIA, they seem so modern, and yet almost everything he does, has a parallel or a source in the Renaissance.

SHEIR: Well, Bill Sherman, thank you so much.

SHERMAN: Well, it's a pleasure.

WITMORE: Bill Sherman is a professor of Renaissance studies at the University of York in York, England, and head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He's also been an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow here at the Folger. Our interview with Bill was conducted by Rebecca Sheir.

"Not Single Spies, But in Battalions" was recorded by Tobey Schreiner and edited by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer.

It is a part of the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series, which comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.