Monday, August 11, 2008

Secret Transmissions

Katie, who is assisting me on this project, is still stuck in the mire of arbitration correspondence from the 1920s. She is always finding all sorts of weird communications--sarcastic replies, indignant feedback, or the occasional advertisement for curing baldness. Correspondence is really such a great way to get a feel for the spirit of an organization or a person, or to get a peek into how people really feel about things. But, yes, I know--a lot of it can be pretty boring, too. Anyway, Katie recently came across this Western Union telegram (or cablegram, I guess):

It's easy to discern that "Bernheimer" is the addressee and that "Tulloch" is the sender, but it's that line above "Tulloch" that catches the eye. What does that garbled message mean, you wonder? Well, just consult the code key:

The translated code is confirmed in the letter that follows:

One can only assume that the message was coded because it is related to a private legal matter; I guess it's similar to encryption methods used today. It makes me wonder though, how often was this coding method employed and how it was translated? Who came up with the code? Was a new one used for every case or incident? How does the receiver find out the key to the code? I like the idea of law firms and businesses sending out secret decoder rings to clients and associates,

or secretaries poring over confidential memos that lay out the key.

Any code experts out there, if you have some insight in to this, please feel free to let me know.



Charles said...

While privacy was a concern, I think that more of a concern was length of the message. By having an agreed-upon code book the communicants could send more extensive messages cheaper. There was a number of different commercial code books for this.

NYCC Project Archivist said...

Thanks for your response, that's really interesting. In that case, I am surprised we didn't come across any other coded messages before this one.