Puzzle History: Codebreaking and the NSA

[Image courtesy of NSA.gov.]

The National Security Agency has been in the news a lot over the last few years.

It arguably all started with Edward Snowden and the revelations about government surveillance, both domestic and foreign, that emerged in his wake. Between President Trump’s intimations of Obama-era wiretapping (which also supposedly involved England’s GCHQ) and recent news stories about NSA contractor Reality Winner leaking information, the NSA continues to draw mainstream attention in the 24-hour news cycle.

When you factor in the declassification of codebreaking intel during and after World War II, we know more about the NSA’s inner workings than ever before.

You might be asking what the NSA has to do with puzzles. Well, everything. Because the NSA was born as a codecracking organization.

The NSA was founded in November of 1952, but its formative stages began during World War II, as codebreakers were recruited in the U.S. starting in 1943. Not only were they tasked with tackling the German ENIGMA code, but their secondary mission was to solve “the Russian problem.” This group was known as Signals Intelligence, or SIGINT.

William Friedman, one of the early figures in American codebreaking, described cryptanalysis as “a unique profession, demanding a peculiar king of puzzle-solving mentality combined with patience. So staffing this new organization was a curious endeavor.”

Those who were recruited came from all walks of life:

Career officers and new draftees, young women math majors just out of Smith or Vassar, partners of white-shoe New York law firms, electrical engineers from MIT, the entire ship’s band from the battleship California after it was torpedoed by the Japanese in the attack on Pearl Harbor, winners of puzzle competitions, radio hobbyists, farm boys from Wisconsin, world-traveling ex-missionaries, and one of the World’s foremost experts on the cuneiform tablets of ancient Assyria.

A large campus was built that echoed the style and efforts of Britain’s Bletchley Park, including Alan Turing’s calculating machines, the bombes. Efforts on both sides of the Atlantic centered on cracking ENIGMA, the German codes used in all sorts of high-level communications. The teams worked alongside the bombes to try to determine which of the 456, 976 possible codes was being used in a given piece of communication.

It was a truly Herculean effort.

But while nearly half the staff focused on the Germans, others focused on cracking Russian codebooks, where words were translated into four-digit codes. Often, decrypting these codes involved “brute force” efforts, poring through numerous messages to pair up messages that used similar numerical groups, meaning they used the same cipher.

This would only work if the Soviets were lazy in their production of so-called “one-time pads,” encryption devices that had a particular code, which would be used once and then thrown away. Brute force codebreaking revealed that some of the one-time pads had been used more than once, a lapse in Soviet security that could work to the advantage of U.S. intelligence.

That deduction led to another stunning discovery: cracking the system used in encrypted messages to tell agents which encryption was used in a given missive. You see, each encoded message contained within it a code that dictated the cipher necessary to decrypt the message.

The Russians would later complicate this work by employing multiplexers: devices that would transmit numerous messages at once, making it harder to separate one message from another in the same dispatch.

[Image courtesy of Virtantiq.com.]

The Germans would unwittingly aid the US in their Russian codebreaking efforts when a POW camp in Bad Aibling, Germany, was captured by the US army, and they uncovered a German device designed to “de-multiplex” Russian messages. The device was called the HMFS, because Hartmehrfachfernschreiber, while a great deal of fun to type, is hard to say quickly.

After World War II ended, U.S. intelligence consolidated their efforts on “the Russian problem,” continuing their work unraveling the Russian codebooks. Slowly, the codemasters began determining which organizations in the Soviet government used which codes. Even if the codes weren’t broken yet, it helped the intelligence community organize and prioritize their efforts.

The problem? They had a very tight timeframe to work in. Those duplicated codebooks were produced during a very small window of time in 1942, and only issued to Soviet agents in the three years that followed. By 1947, SIGINT analysts knew the Soviets would soon run out of the duplicated pads. Once they did, those recurring patterns of encrypted numbers would stop, and the best chance for cracking the Soviet codes would be lost.

Still, there was reason to be encouraged. Some important code words had been identified. TYRE was New York City, SIDON was London, and CARTHAGE was Washington; ENORMOZ appeared often enough that they determined it referred to atomic bomb research in Los Alamos.

It would also be revealed, through careful analysis of decrypted intel, that Soviet agents were embedded in both the U.S. Justice Department and in England’s Bletchley Park campus. The Justice Department agent was identified and tried, but released after the court found insufficient evidence to place her under surveillance in the first place.

This was one consequence of the secrecy surrounding codebreaking: an unwillingness to reveal their codebreaking success by turning over evidence of it. (As for the Bletchley Park spies, one was identified in 1951 and confessed in 1964. The other was never identified.)

By this time, the Russians had gone over ENIGMA machines captured during the German retreat, and had unraveled not only how the devices worked, but how to improve upon them. This would lead to the next-generation Russian Fialka machine.

With ever-increasing complexity when it came to encryption, thanks to increased automation, codebreaking evolved into not just intelligence work, but intelligence analysis. After all, if you don’t know something is important, you don’t necessarily give it the attention it deserves. As researcher Stephen Budiansky put it, “The top translators at Bletchley were intelligence officers first, who sifted myriad pieces to assemble an insightful whole.”

It also led to bigger, faster machines, like Goldberg and Demon, two computation machines designed to more efficiently pore over the vast amount of encrypted information being intercepted by the various U.S. intelligence services.

In 1948, though, the game changed. It changed so dramatically that November 1, 1948, is still remembered in NSA circles as Black Friday.


I hope you’re enjoying this look at the early days of America’s codebreaking efforts. Part 2 will continue next week, with a look at the rise of the NSA, Cold War cryptography, and more!

[Quotes and certain photos were sourced from Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union by Stephen Budiansky.]


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Crossword History: Dawe and D-Day

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

June 6, 1944 is a date that will continue to resonate for decades to come, and perhaps centuries. On that day, D-Day, the largest amphibious military attack in history was launched as the Allied forces landed at Normandy. This was one of the major offensives that helped bring about the end of World War II.

But a few days before that, a curious confluence of events brought crosswords to the attention to British agents, namely those of MI5.

Yes, tomorrow, June 2, 1944, marks the anniversary of the day a physics teacher and crossword constructor named Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

More specifically, the words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

So, the authorities had to investigate the highly improbable, yet still possible, scenario that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and scooped up the constructor to investigate.

In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words (possibly mentioned by the loose lips of soldiers stationed nearby) and slipped them into his grids unwittingly, or this is simply an incredible coincidence.

Some crossword fans suspect that there’s more to the story, though.

According to The Guardian newspaper:

During the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of D-day, one of Dawe’s former pupils approached the Telegraph and insisted that as a lad, he had overheard US and Canadian soldiers discussing the plans, picked up on the codewords, and suggested them to his headmaster as possible entries.

This has been dismissed by most historians as an attempt to rewrite or embellish an already baffling story.

Nonetheless, it’s possible that, somewhere, some document connecting Mr. Dawes and the codewords is waiting to be discovered.

Until then, it simply remains a curious moment in crossword history.


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Puzzle Plagiarism: One Year Later

This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest stories in puzzles: the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal, aka #gridgate.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can click here for more detail, but here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

The story originally broke on data analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com thanks to Oliver Roeder, but the real credit belongs to Tausig and Pwanson. The article sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Roeder reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and president of Lone Shark Games, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken:

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles. After all, plagiarism isn’t tolerated in publishing or college term papers, so why should the efforts of crossword constructors be considered any less sacrosanct?

And except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it. As far as anyone knew, Parker was still employed by Uclick, and they wouldn’t confirm or deny his involvement in any non-USA Today and Gannett-published puzzles in the future.

So naturally, as the one-year anniversary of the story loomed in the distance, I got curious. What had become of Parker? Was he still involved with Universal Uclick?

Sadly, I have no new answers for you. I reached out to Universal Uclick for comment, and they declined to reply. Parker was similarly difficult to reach.

But even without new threads to follow, this is an important story to revisit. It represents the solidarity, pride, and support of the puzzle community. It represents the rights of creators to be respected and to have their hard work respected. It represents the power of concerned citizens speaking up.

It reminded people that crosswords represent much more than a way to pass an idle Sunday morning.


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75 Years of New York Times Crosswords!

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of The New York Times publishing its first crossword, and I thought I’d delve into NYT crossword history a bit to commemorate this event!

On February 15, 1942, The New York Times ran its first Sunday edition crossword. (The daily feature as we know it wouldn’t come into effect until 1950.)

But, you might be thinking to yourself, Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” first appeared in the New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster published The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, edited by Margaret Farrar, in 1924. What took The New York Times so long to catch on?

Truth be told, they didn’t think much of crosswords back then.

“Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjongg sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.”

The article goes on to call crosswords “a primitive form of mental exercise” and compare their value to that of so-called brain teasers that should be solved by schoolchildren in 30 seconds or less. A pretty harsh assessment, overall.

So, what changed their minds regarding crosswords?

Well, World War II happened.

“I don’t think I have to sell you on the increased demand for this type of pastime in an increasingly worried world,” wrote Margaret Farrar, the first crossword editor of The Times, in a memo to Lester Markel, the Sunday editor, after the Pearl Harbor attack. “You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword.”

In a memo dated December 18, 1941, Markel conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world, and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts.

The puzzle proved popular, and Arthur Hays Sulzberger — the publisher of the New York Times and a longtime crossword fan himself — would author a Times puzzle before the year was out.

And so now, only a few years after the crossword itself celebrated its centennial, the most famous crossword outlet in the world is celebrating three-quarters of a century, along with a wonderful legacy of innovation, wordplay, and creativity.

To mark the occasion, The Times is going all out. Not only did they publish a crossword on Tuesday by the youngest constructor in NYT history — 13-year-old Daniel Larsen — but over the course of the year, they’ll be publishing collaborations between top constructors and celebrity solvers!

The first, a feast of a collab between Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg, was published yesterday.

So, we here at PuzzleNation tip our hat to not only the current crew at The New York Times crossword, but all of the editors, constructors, creators, and collaborators who have contributed to a true crossword institution. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

[For more on the 75th anniversary, please check out Deb Amlen’s wonderful piece here (from which I nabbed that Margaret Farrar quote).]


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The Puzzle of the Bard

William Shakespeare is a name we all know well. We’ve studied his works in school, used words and phrases he coined or popularized, and we’ve seen numerous films, TV shows, and other adaptations inspired by his writing.

But for more than two centuries, there has been a great deal of debate over whether the man known as William Shakespeare actually wrote all of the brilliant works for which he is acclaimed.

There are whole societies dedicated to either rooting out the truth or proffering their candidate for who really wrote the works of Shakespeare. Many names are bandied about, including a who’s who of luminaries at the time, like Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth I, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, Anne Hathaway, Sir Walter Raleigh, and perhaps most ardently, Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford.

[Image courtesy of The Truth About Shakespeare.]

Now, granted, there’s plenty to suggest Shakespeare collaborated with other writers on some of his works, but we’re not talking about collaboration here. We’re talking about ghostwriting some of the most famous works in human history.

But, you may be asking, other than a shared love of wordplay, what does the Shakespearean authorship question have to do with puzzles?

I’m glad you asked.

Over the years, several theorists have reported finding secret codes or ciphers in the text of Shakespeare’s works which hinted toward the true author.

Samuel Morse, a man who knows one or two things about codes, discussed how Sir Francis Bacon had created such codes, probably as part of his spy work, perhaps even going so far as to create an encrypted signature of sorts that appears in multiple Shakespeare works.

According to a BBC America article on the subject:

One scholar at the time went so far as to produce an enormous “cipher wheel” composed of a 1000-foot piece of cloth that contained the texts of Shakespeare and others for easy comparison and decryption. He claimed that by deciphering codes, he’d discovered the location of a box, buried under the Wye River, that contained documents that would prove Sir Francis’s authorship. But a dredging of the area came up with nothing.

[Orville Ward Owen’s cipher wheel. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Now, there’s little doubt that Bacon was a code master, but there’s equally little evidence that he wrote the works of Shakespeare.

Of course, if there are codes in those works, perhaps Shakespeare placed them there himself.

According to a theory by scholar Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, Shakespeare’s careful and curious word choices were intended to foment subversive political messages and advance his own agenda of strong Catholic beliefs.

Constancy in love was Shakespeare’s way of alluding to the importance of a true faith in the ‘old religion’, she says. More specifically, his puns and metaphors often circled around certain key phrases. For instance, to be ‘sunburned’ or ‘tanned’, as are his heroines Viola, Imogen and Portia, was to be close to God and so understood as a true Catholic.

[Image courtesy of Amazon.com.]

It’s amazing that we know so little about someone so influential. And it’s only natural that we try to fill in the blanks with our own theorists, be they explanations of Shakespeare’s impressive knowledge or possibilities of alternative authorship.

The man himself is a puzzle, and that is irresistible to some, myself included. Are Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the bard one and the same?

As it turns out, that question might finally have an answer, thanks to the sleuthing of Dr. Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The story begins with Shakespeare’s father:

John Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon, was ambitious to rise in the world. He was certainly not the first Englishman keen to put his origins as a provincial tradesman behind him. Among his contemporaries in Stratford, he was a figure of fun for his social climbing. English class snobbery has a long pedigree.

His son, who would continue the quest for official recognition after his father’s death, also attracted metropolitan disdain as “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers”. In 1601, after his father’s death, Shakespeare the upstart returned to the college of arms to renew the family application for a coat of arms.

He had made a small fortune in the theatre, and was buying property in and around Stratford. Now he set out to consolidate his reputation as a “Gentleman”. Under the rules that governed life at the court of Elizabeth I, only the Queen’s heralds could grant this wish.

[Image courtesy of The Shakespeare Blog.]

And it’s this application for a family coat of arms that provides the connective tissue between the man and the bard. “They point to someone actively involved in defining and defending his legacy in 1602, shortly after his father’s death,” according to Wolfe.

But whether there are codes lurking in the Bard’s works or not, the mystery of the man himself might be the greatest puzzle of all.


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PuzzleNation Book Review: Tetris: The Games People Play

Welcome to another installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

The subject of today’s book review is Box Brown’s graphic novel Tetris: The Games People Play.

[Image courtesy of Macmillan.]

Tetris was a masterpiece right out of the gate. Simple, elegant, and infinitely replayable, it would go on to become one of the most beloved video games in history. And that popularity, that universal charm, sparked a bidding war unlike anything the video game world has ever seen. With secret meetings, dubious contracts, language barriers, and the involvement of the suffocating Soviet regime, it was a recipe for sitcom-style misunderstandings on a global scale.

Tetris: The Games People Play brings the whole ridiculous story to life with immense charm and style. From the creation of Alexey Pajitnov’s delightfully addictive brainchild to the globe-spanning race that ensued as production rights went international, this is a story as convoluted and madcap as it is epic.

Although the drawings accompanying the story are relatively simple, the large cast of characters — from executives and game designers to members of the Soviet government — never feels overwhelming or confusing.

[Image courtesy of DownTheTubes.net.]

Illustrator and author Box Brown brings the story to life with the same panache and colorful style that made his visual biography of Andre the Giant such a warm, enjoyable read. The rounded edges and busy frames help sell both the silliness and chaos of the story, and the mix of yellow, black, and white shading in each illustration harkens back to the earliest days of video games.

(The yellow feels especially inspired, given how easily the story could’ve bogged down in the omnipresent gray tones of Soviet society or the bureaucratic doubletalk that typifies business negotiations.)

Most importantly, Brown never allows readers to lose sight of Alexey’s role as creator and keeper of the faith, a man who, under one of the most oppressive regimes in history, brought to life a game that continues to delight generations of fans.

As entertaining as it is insightful, Tetris: The Games People Play is a fun, fascinating read.

[Tetris: The Games People Play is available in paperback wherever books are sold.]


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