Two important events took place in the London area yesterday: the royal wedding and the “History of Cryptography and Codes” conference (including a presentation given by me). Hundreds of thousands of people came to see these two spectacles.
One of the most important events of the year took place in London yesterday. No, I’m not talking about the royal wedding, but about the History of Cryptography and Codes conference. There are several reasons why this conference held in central London (organized by the British Society for the History of Mathematics) was a lot more interesting than the ceremony in Windsor (though the latter had, admittedly, the better press).
1) Because I gave a presentation
Just like the wedding planners, conference organizer Sarah Hart from the British Society for the History of Mathematics decided not to invite any domestic and international political leaders. So neither Theresa May nor leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, showed up at any of the two events.
Anyway, many remarkable people showed up at both the wedding and the conference. While there were many stars at the wedding, the stars of the day at Birkbeck were the conference speakers. I had the pleasure and the honor to be one of them.
My presentation was titled Solving Historical Ciphers with Modern Means. Like usual, I used plenty of self-drawn cartoons and Lego brick models to illustrate my talk (the fact that some of my talks include Lego pictures was one of the reasons why Sarah Hart hired me as a speaker).
Among other things, I spoke about the Zodiac Killer …
… with a focus on the recently published paper by Tom Juzek, which was critized by Nick Pelling. I hope Tom and Nick will excuse that I showed the following caricatures of them:
2) Because it featured Clifford Cocks
At the conference, I was, of course, by far not the most prominent lecturer. In fact, the most renowned person on the speaker list was Clifford Cocks, who is known as the real inventor of the RSA encryption algorithm (RSA is a method applied by virtually every PC, tablet and smartphone in the world).
RSA is named for Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman, who developed this algorithm in 1977. As became known 20 years later, Cocks, a mathematician working for the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), had described an equivalent system in a classified publication already in 1973. As the GCHQ did not notice the potential of this system, Cocks’ invention was neither implemented nor patented.
Clifford Cocks is mentioned in my book Codeknacker gegen Codemacher, which is about the history of cryptography. When I met him at the conference, I took the chance to pose for a photograph together with him and the book.
For me, Clifford Cocks is a much more interesting personality than Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will ever be. It goes without saying that his talk about the invention of RSA was more thrilling than the wedding sermon at Windsor Castle.
3) Because it featured Dermot Turing
Another featured speaker was Sir Dermot Turing, the nephew of the legendary Alan Turing. He talked about the codebreakers of Bletchley Park. Unlike many had expected, Dermot did not focus on his famous uncle but mainly covered other important Bletchley Park protagonists, like Dilly Knox and Gordon Welshman. The following picture shows Dermot together with conference manager Sarah Hart:
There were three more speakers: Elizabeth Quaglia (Royal Holloway, University of London), Janos Körner from Rome, and Keith Martin (Royal Holloway, University of London). There’s no doubt that it was a fantastic program.
4) Because it was less crowded
To be honest, the royal wedding in Windsor attracted a slightly bigger crowd than the History of Cryptography and Codes. I didn’t count the people in the audience, but I am sure there were over 100. In addition, the streets around Birkbeck were considerably less crowded than usual, as most of the local people were at Windsor or watching TV.
I am glad that I attended the much smaller of the two London events that took place yesterday. While the people at Windsor had to watch a more or less boring wedding ceremony, the attendants at Birkbeck could dedicate themselved to the much more interesting topic of crypto history. Prince Harry will probably never become the king of England, but cryptology will always be the queen of sciences.
Further reading: A great event: the European Historical Ciphers Colloquium 2017