November 6, 1948
The Saturday Evening Post
of Contents] These articles are scanned and OCRed from old editions of the The Saturday Evening
Post magazine. Here is a list of the The Saturday Evening Post articles I have already posted. All copyrights are hereby
messages, whether by wire or wireless means, has always been expensive, particularly
considering charges are determined by the character (letter, number, symbol).
Accordingly, the Shakespearean line from Hamlet declaring that "brevity
is the soul of wit" can be reworked to "brevity is the soul of economy."
A telegraph wire, unlike a telephone call, is a legally binding communiqué,
as is of course a written letter, but a telegram is immediate transmission of
information for time-critical messaging.
A series of 'commercial codes' were developed enabling senders to save
often significant money by sending multi-character codes that represented entire
phrases and/or sentences. What struck me about this article that appeared in
a 1948 issue of The Saturday Evening Post is how, following a court
case involving how the inadvertent swapping of two character positions in a
code caused a significant monetary loss by a company, a scheme for creating
commercial codes was devised that assured at least two characters changed
within each code within each message. It reminded me of
developed by Frank Gray (patent
to minimize the effect of erroneous decoding while switch flipping, in digital
sequences whereby two successive numbers only change by a single bit.
You'll need to read the story to find out who won the lawsuit, and why.
Lost Your Money? Wire KUBIT
William J. Mitchel makes a few words do the work of many.
By Paul D. Green
Commercial codes, like double talk and nuclear fission, require a lot of
understanding. To the average person, the oddly combined letters, GAHGU, appearing
in a business telegram, might suggest approaching nausea. But to men like William
J. Mitchel, who know commercial codes, these letters stand for "cod-liver oil."
Similarly, the letters AAAAA, in code language, mean "goose feathers, No.1 grade,"
and the letters ZZZZZ mean "bamboo steel." Between these combinations are 456,000
other possible combinations, which may mean anything from a single word to a
whole page of text.
In twenty-six years of code building, Mitchel has sold some 40,000 general
business codes at from forty to seventy-five dollars each. In addition, he has
made private codes for more than 300 large firms, including Standard Oil and
General Motors. His largest private code contained 400,000 five-letter combinations,
took two years and nine assistants to assemble, and cost the silk-importing
firm that ordered it $100,000. Military and diplomatic codes are in an entirely
different field; they are so much more complicated that only during wartime
does the Government bother to censor commercial codes.
Commercial codes have two main purposes: to cut cable and telegram costs,
and to make messages confidential. The cheaper business codes may be read by
anyone willing to buy a code book; the more expensive private codes are carefully
guarded, and code books are given only to trusted officials. The. saving in
telegraphic charges through the use of codes is easily understood. For example,
the five letter combination LIMUD stands' for the phrase, "Cannot return unless
you prepay passage." PYTUO means, "Have collided with an iceberg," and KUBIT
means, "Have lost all my money." There are more pleasant messages in any commercial
code book, but the general idea is to make a few letters do the work of many
words. Happily, the telegraph companies smile on this effort, and encourage
code users by giving them a 40 per cent discount. The discount, plus the saving
of words, explains the great saving.
As codes are handled by humans, occasional mistakes crop up.
Years ago a Brazilian castor-bean grower wired a New York merchant the code
word NFHIU, which means, "Cannot sell." The message, jumbled en route, arrived
as NHFIU, which means, "Sell, if you cannot do better." The merchant sold, and
the castor-bean grower lost a lot of money. The Supreme Court has ruled that
the telegraph company isn't responsible for such mistakes.
Most of these errors happened because there was only a one-letter difference
in every five-letter combination. Then William Mitchel revolutionized the commercial-code
business by trotting out a code that had two letters different in every combination.
From this solid springboard, he jumped to become head of the Acme Code Company,
with offices in London, New York and San Francisco, and to be considered by
many the top commercial-code man in the world.
Here's how the codes operate: The sender uses the subject index of his code
book to find the phrase and code equivalent he needs for his message. The receiver
simply takes his code book and runs down the alphabetically listed combinations
until he finds the right one.
Mitchel often is asked to decode personal messages. He thinks the saddest
words of code or pen came to him when he decoded one that a young lady received
from a man she obviously knew not wisely, but too well. It read: "I am giving
you up for my wife."
Posted March 16, 2021
(updated from original post on 2/17/2016)