November 6, 1948
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
The Saturday Evening Post
Sending telegraph 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 'Gray code,' developed by Frank Gray
(patent US2632058 A) 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
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.
William J. Mitchel makes a few words do the work of many.
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 February 17, 2016