The ACA and YOU: Chapter 1

[ From "A Handbook for Members of The American Cryptogram Association" ]

A Brief History

The American Cryptogram Association was organized originally to place the "cryptogram" on an equivalent basis with chess, thus contributing to the happiness of mankind. It has grown to encompass many phases of cryptography, using both pencils and paper and computers.

During the 1920s, "Detective Fiction Weekly" had a feature on cryptography by M. E. Ohaver. Dr. C. B. Warner and some friends were attracted by the technical aspects of this as a hobby, and joined to form the American Cryptogram Association on September 1, 1929. The "ACA" was at first concerned only with what we now call mono-alphabetic substitution ciphers, termed by them "The Aristocrat of Puzzles".

Meanwhile, in Burton, Ohio, George Lamb ran the "Secret Corner" in the local newspaper. He was reading Ohaver's column, and was also a member of the National Puzzler's League, from whom we have inherited the idea of using noms-de-plume, or "noms", as a means of bringing equality - or at least anonymity - to their cipher-solving. Lamb chose "DAMON-ODAD" as his nom, and became known as "DAMON". He too was concentrating on Aristocrats, and on finding the demand for his column was increasing, he and Warner agreed to publish a magazine which would be the official journal of the ACA. It was to be named The Cryptogram. The ACA now has nearly 1000 members all over the world, and The Cryptogram has grown to a 32-page bimonthly journal, with six major departments and a separate Computer Supplement.

In 1933, "The Master Puzzler" was published, and contained the name of Helen Fouche Gaines under the nom of PICCOLA. Her major interests were in ciphers - various systems of disguising text aside from the Simple Substitution. Her first article appeared in The Cryptogram in December 1933, and was followed by the opening of the "Cipher Exchange" in that magazine. The following year, a foreign-language department was started under the name "Xenocrypts".

In 1936, interest having grown in ciphers and methods of breaking them, it was suggested that the ACA should publish a text book. The contents would be taken from the "Round Robin" lessons that had been a major method of spreading information and practice among members, with additional material from foreign sources and hard-to-find books. With help from many volunteers, Elementary Cryptanalysis appeared for the first time in 1939, under the editorship of Helen Fouche Gaines. The book was also dedicated to George Lamb, who died before it appeared in print. PICCOLA died soon after. "Elcy" was the first book of its kind to appear in English, and was reprinted by Dover in 1956 under the title Cryptanalysis. It remains a standard text to this day. The ACA has since published many other booklets on specialized subjects, all produced by volunteers among our members.

In 1982 a regular "Computer Column" was started. In deference to those who do not possess computers, fully developed programs are not published in this column, but only hints and suggestions for enciphering and deciphering. In 1986, a Computer Supplement began publication; it contains more information on computer activities.

Cryptography has been more than merely an entertainment for the enjoyment of ingenuity. It engages the mind fully, and can provide a healthy period of work for those unable to do much else. George Lamb was confined to a wheelchair, but the world of cryptography opened its content as well as its friendships to him. It can become a harmless addiction, a passion, so captivating are the efforts required in grappling with a problem.

A member reminded us once that it's a nice hobby in that it can be enjoyed with no more equipment that a pencil and paper, and little expense beyond postage and a subscription to the ACA.

The ACA is a non-profit organization with no limits on membership, devoted to the dissemination of cryptographic knowledge. Officers receive no reward for service other than the joy of promoting cryptography.

Cryptographers are diversified in every way. Hardly a trade or profession has missed representation among us. Age is not a factor; we have had members under 10 and over 90. Formal education seems totally unrelated to the curious talent. The use of noms brings a degree of anonymity to the members; only cryptography counts. We are banded together in an organization which represents everyone with these aims: to gain the most from a study of cryptograms, to form worth-while friendships, and to pass on the knowledge we have been able to add to the Art.

Once a year members and friends, experts and novices, gather at a Convention. Many meet for the first time, although they may be old friends by mail. New enthusiasm is generated for the hobby as mutual help is given and experience is shared.

Reading List

Kahn, David, The Codebreakers, Macmillian, New York, 1967

A monumental - 1164 pages - history of codes and ciphers from ancient Greece to the present day. Good descriptions of the mechanics of cryptanalysis, with emphasis on the people involved. Also available in paperback from Signet (abridged).

Note: A new, revised edition, as of 11/96, has just been published.

Gaines, Helen Fouche, Cryptanalysis, Dover, New York, 1956

Originally published before the war, this is the amateur cryptanalyst's bible. Clear, concise descriptions of many ciphers and how to attack them.

Sinkov, Abraham, Elementary Cryptanalysis, The Mathematical Association of America, 1966

This book contains a well-written description of several ciphers. More limited range than Gaines, but the treatment is deeper, with extremely good analysis of the mathematics involved. The Third edition contains some BASIC programs for computer analysis.

Reading List for Computer Users

Foster, Caxton, Cryptanalysis for Microcomputers, Hayden, New Jersey, 1982
A very good introduction to computer use for encryption and decryption, containing many BASIC programs, and also a good patternword list.

Specialty Publisher

The Aegean Park Press, PO Box 2837, Laguna Hills, California 92653, has an extensive list of publications in the field of cryptanalysis. Included are reprints of famous works, and modern contributions.

Other Journals

"Cryptologia:, a quarterly journal devoted to Cryptography," is published at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute, Indiana 47803, USA.

(Reviews of other books (and also software) are regular features in both The Cryptogram and The Computer Supplement.