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The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet Hardcover – December 5, 1996


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The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet + The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography + Cryptanalysis: A Study of Ciphers and Their Solution
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 1200 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Rev Sub edition (December 5, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684831309
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684831305
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.6 x 2.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #186,558 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"Few false ideas have more firmly gripped the minds of so many intelligent men than the one that, if they just tried, they could invent a cipher that no one could break," writes David Kahn in this massive (almost 1,200 pages) volume. Most of The Codebreakers focuses on the 20th century, especially World War II. But its reach is long. Kahn traces cryptology's origins to the advent of writing. It seems that as soon as people learned how to record their thoughts, they tried to figure out ways of keeping them hidden. Kahn covers everything from the theory of ciphering to the search for "messages" from outer space. He concludes with a few thoughts about encryption on the Internet.

Review

The Washington Post Kahn has produced a tour de force...The volume is an anthology of a hundred detective stories, one more ingenious than the last, and all real, central to the fate of armies and kingdoms....Magnificent.

The Christian Science Monitor A literary blockbuster...for many evening of gripping reading, no better choice can be made than this book.

Time Perhaps the best and most complete account of cryptography yet published.

The New York Times Book Review A notable achievement...Mr. Kahn has presented the specialist and the general public with a lavishly comprehensive introduction to a subject of basic significance for both.

Prepublication National Security Agency Evaluation, now declassified The book in its entirelty constitutes the most publicly revealing picture that has ever been presented of U.S. Sigint activities and the agencies engaged in this field.

Customer Reviews

This is the only history book that I ever found to be worth reading.
A Customer
This massive, exhaustively-researched book by David Kahn examines the HISTORY of cryptography from the dawn of civilization to the darkness of the Cold War.
George Coppedge
.Kahn's book was the second book I read on the history of cryptology, Simon Singh's "The Code Book" being the first.
Richard T. Leitner

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

147 of 150 people found the following review helpful By Victor A. Vyssotsky on February 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This book is not intended to teach the reader how to design or cryptanalyze codes and ciphers; it is a history book, and a really great one. However, the reader should be aware of a couple of things that may not be apparent.
First, the 1996 "revised edition" differs from the 1967 first edition only in the addition of a final chapter to cover what Kahn didn't know (or didn't choose to include) in the 1967 edition. The first 26 of 27 chapters, and the references and bibliography associated with them, are essentially identical to those of the 1967 edition. This means that a number of statements and passages in the first 26 chapters, although correct in 1967, are misleading if one assumes they were written in 1996. I recommend that the reader skim Chapter 27 quickly before reading the rest of the book, so as not to misunderstand any of what's in earlier chapters.
Second, keep in mind that in 1967 Kahn was essentially an outsider so far as the intelligence community was concerned, but by 1996 he was definitely regarded as an insider. Hence, the new final chapter is written with complete respect for the sensitivities of the intelligence community, which the original book was not. I was surprised to see one particular statement in the last chapter until I realized that NSA wants to correct a misapprehension widely held outside the community. Much more important, Kahn now knows a great deal that he has chosen to omit from the last chapter, including much that's unclassified but still regarded by somebody as sensitive for one reason or another. He even omits certain material that he made publicly available some years ago in his written testimony to a Congressional subcommittee.
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77 of 81 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Klaiss (harper@dbtech.net) on October 21, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I first came across "The Codebreakers" in the original edition, published in the 1960s. It was a massive read, and one which I never finished in one sitting; however, a love of history, the romance of espionage and the fascination of working with mysterious information kept me going. It is a pleasure to see the book has been reissued.
Kahn does not create a textbook for the serious cryptologist; such a work would be more mathematical in approach. What he does is give, from a layman's view, a good mid-level history of the art/science of cryptology. The first chapter, covering the cryptanalytic events of Pearl Harbor, brings you in; then he goes over the history of secret writing from the days of Egyptian hieroglyphics to roughly the present day. Interesting areas include the discussion of the European "black chambers" of the 1600s and 1700s, a good talk about how rumrunners in the Prohibition days used complex code/cipher combinations to thwart the Noble Experiment, and a highly entertaining chapter on the "ciphers" that proved Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's works.
The updated edition falls short in its attempt at updating, which is why I don't give another star to the book. The discussion of cryptography in the world of the Internet is far too thin to satisfy. This, of course, could be a function of the beast; the Internet and electronic cryptology changes faster than any book could keep up with. In addition, information on the Enigma and other areas of World War II cryptology, declassified since the previous edition, could have been added to increase understanding of this critical time. However, the remaining "classic" text is still excellent, and has served as the layman's reference on cryptologic history for thirty years.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 4, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I highly recommend this book. It is an incredibly thorough and complete description of cryptology history. I disagree with some previous criticisms about writing style and racism. I do not find the style difficult in itself, there are maybe too much details given on every historical bits... but this may as well be appraised! I cannot find any racism in Chapter 1, describing the US deciphering efforts of the japanese exchanges just before Pearl Harbor. There are hints of the US (allied actually) superiority in cryptography, but this is a plain historical fact. There is a criticism of 1940's Japan, but I cannot find this objectionnable... (the same is true about Nazi Germany). I could find nothing in the book against Japanese people or today's Japan...
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39 of 44 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 15, 1996
Format: Hardcover
The original version of Codebreakers is a wonderful, detailed
history of cryptography and spies. This new edition is the
same book with 16 additional pages pretending to update the
history of the last 30 years. The great photographs of the
first edition have been considerably degraded in quality
to boot. I guess that it meets the standard of a new edition
but the list priceof $65 for a bare outline of 30 years is
unreasonable. I think it is a fraud to add 16 pages to a book
that is almost 1200 pages and call it revised and updated.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful By C. Abrams on August 27, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I am in the midst of Kahn's 1000-plus page history of code at the moment, and so cannot provide a complete review here, but I'd like to offer an opinion that balances those of other contributors. Kahn's book is a compelling read, and clearly the product of exhaustive research. He initially captures one's curiosity with a gripping behind-closed-doors account of the days leading up to the attack at Pearl Harbor--an 80-page segment that moves quickly and confidently through a factual narrative rivalling the best war fiction. The next chapter retreats to a history of code and cipher, and this is where the trouble begins. While Kahn's research is superb, he gets bogged down in esoterica, and the book slows. The next several hundred pages are filled with great information, but there is little compelling narrative to drive the story along. Kahn opts instead to indulge in a detailed explanation of cipher--arguably essential to the later chapters--but serves up little of the immediacy and pace of the first chapter. In addition, he's not at all judicious with his use of superlatives; the writing is peppered with far too many statements like '...the most somberly prophetic in the whole history of cryptology'. Kahn hits his stride when he has a strong historical tale to structure his presentation. The descriptions of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scotts, and WW I, for example, are outstanding. If the book were pared down to this type of episode alone, it would be a 'cover-to-cover' experience. As it is, its extensiveness limits its audience to only those already enthusiastic about this arcane field. I came to the book intrigued by the secret goings-on conducted in secret writing, and am tempted to abandon it, or at least skim a generous portion.
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