Polybius Squares and Caesar Shifts

Although historical findings show that several ancient civilizations used elements of ciphers and codes in their writing, code experts say that these examples were meant to give the message a sense of importance and formality. The person writing the message intended for his audience to be able to read it.

The Greeks were one of the first civilizations to use ciphers to communicate in secrecy. A Greek scholar named Polybius proposed a system for enciphering a message in which a cryptographer represented each letter with a pair of numbers ranging from one to five using a 5-by-5 square (the letters I and J shared a square). The Polybius Square (sometimes called the checkerboard) looks like this:

1

2

3

4

5

1

A

B

C

D

E

2

F

G

H

I/J

K

3

L

M

N

O

P

4

Q

R

S

T

U

5

V

W

X

Y

Z

A cryptographer would write the letter "B" as "12". The letter O is "34". To encipher the phrase "How Stuff Works," the cryptographer would write "233452 4344452121 5234422543." Because he replaces each letter with two numbers, it's difficult for someone unfamiliar with the code to determine what this message means. The cryptographer could make it even more difficult by mixing up the order of the letters instead of writing them out alphabetically.

Julius Caesar invented another early cipher -- one that was very simple and yet confounded his enemies. He created enciphered messages by shifting the order of the alphabet by a certain number of letters. For example, if you were to shift the English alphabet down three places, the letter "D" would represent the letter "A," while the letter "E" would mean "B" and so forth. You can visualize this code by writing the two alphabets on top of one another with the corresponding plaintext and cipher matching up like this:

Plaintext

a

b

c

d

e

f

g

h

i

j

k

l

m

Cipher

D

E

F

G

H

I

J

K

L

M

N

O

P

Plaintext

n

o

p

q

r

s

t

u

v

w

x

y

z

Cipher

Q

R

S

T

U

V

W

X

Y

Z

A

B

C


Notice that the cipher alphabet wraps around to "A" after reaching "Z." Using this cipher system, you could encipher the phrase "How Stuff Works" as "KRZ VWXII ZRUNV."

Both of these systems, the Polybius Square and the Caesar Shift, formed the basis of many future cipher systems.

In the next section, we'll look at a few of these more advanced methods of encryption.

Deciphering the Language
To encipher a message means to replace the letters in the text with the replacement alphabet. The readable message is called the plaintext. The cryptographer converts the plaintext into a cipher and sends it on. The recipient of the message uses the proper technique, called the key, to decipher the message, changing it from a cipher back into a plaintext.