Considered to be one of the best books on the history of cryptography, David Kahn’s The Codebreakers truly is a monument to cryptography - and a sizable one at that. At more than a thousand pages, this book is not for a bit of light summer reading. However, to get a very comprehensive history of cryptography up to the 1960s (when the original version came out), this book remains the best option.

Beginning with the concept of stenography and its origins millennia ago, through the rise and fall of cryptography in the Muslim nations, the huge nomenclatures of Europe in the Middle Ages, the invention and defeat of the Vigenère cipher and on into the mechanization of ciphers of the early twentieth century, David Kahn presents an exhaustively researched examination of every known event of cryptography. Nor does he limit himself to the military and political forms of cryptography, but devotes a respectable section of the book entitled “Side Shows” to discussion of various other cryptographic pursuits, such as the attempt to prove that Francis Bacon had written the works of Shakespeare and encoded hints about it in all Shakespeare’s tomes (all “successful” decodings of which were easily debunked by real cryptanalysis) and other literary and historical puzzles.

Unfortunately The Codebreakers has a huge failing. Although it covers the history of cryptography up to the 1960s in a manner approaching perfection, the updated section of the book, covering the development of public key encryption (undoubtedly the most important development in cryptography to this point, and will remain so barring significant advances in quantum computing) is lacking. Considering the sheer volume of information devoted to previous events in cryptography (over 800 pages worth) the 50 or so pages devoted to developments since the original version is disturbingly brief.

Even the history of the development of RSA is ignored, and only a small description of the origins of AES is included.

In short, for anyone interested in learning about the history of cryptography from the beginnings of stenography to the early days of the Cold War would do well to pick up The Codebreakers, but be prepared to want more about recent developments.

The Codebreakers can be found here. (Amazon)