My appreciation for Edgar Allan Poe began, like most, with “The Raven.” I experienced the dim of the December room, the sounds, and shadows, the hollow luxury of love beyond the grave. This was poetry. It was art with a maddening pulse.
Next came “Annabel Lee,” just as somber, with a rush of tides and cold wind. Later I would read Poe’s stories, which only pulled me further into his offbeat, gloomy chamber. I was transfixed by one particular copy of “The Black Cat”— letterpress printed with tattoo-style illustrations. “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” absolutely rattled me. (Spoiler: he definitely had a thing for insanity and people stuck in cramped and dangerous places. Cute.)
Of course, “The Masque of the Red Death” is perhaps the single tale with such meticulous foresight into our modern pandemic era. His writing remains a portal to a very secret, chilling space that some are only willing to witness for a moment...a place that Poe allowed to enshrine him completely.
So what does this all have to do with crypto? When I was first curious about the computer science behind digital currency, I took a quick tumble through Wikipedia to learn more about encryption.
As it turns out, Poe was more than the father of fright — he helped usher cryptography to the masses in the US in the 1800s through stories, puzzles, and prizes.
Cryptography is, at its heart, secure and private communication. In its earlier stages, it typically manifested itself as the art of encoding and decoding writings or ciphers. Broadly defined, it includes creating and analyzing protocols to avoid third-party observation — but in computer science, we focus on encrypting and decrypting electronic data, sent or stored. This involves math-based techniques like discrete probability and computational number theory.
In cryptocurrencies, it’s used to allocate and utilize private keys (or addresses) within a network as transactions take place between individuals. This ensures the security and anonymity of senders and recipients and protection from double-spending — a primary pitfall that any viable digital asset must avoid. Bitcoin was one of the first digital currencies to use cryptography and do so successfully.
In crypto, we typically illustrate transactions using “Alice” and “Bob” to represent two people sending and receiving encrypted data. With secure cryptography, these two identities are allowed to remain anonymous and go about their business without a third party (company, surveillance, hacker, you name it) watching or getting in the way.
But as I mentioned, cryptography was used prior to computer systems in sending and receiving secret messages. It’s a practice that’s been around for thousands of years. More recent examples include Renaissance Vigenère ciphers and rotor machines in WWII.
So now that we’ve laid all that to rest, let’s revisit Poe.
In 1839, Poe was working for the magazine Alexander’s Weekly Messenger when he received a riddle sent in by a writer. Naturally, he found a way to make it better — and included several additional riddles alongside the reply. His improved method for encrypting puzzles included a definition of what today we call substitution ciphers.
For the next several issues, Poe challenged a larger audience of cipher submissions, saying he could solve anything that came his way. Poe corresponded with candor, solving puzzles that stumped the masses while publishing swift replies to each challenge.
Most notably, he outlined criteria of what makes for a true single substitution cipher versus clues that indicate that they’re fakes — and showed why. All of this was a big deal for the time, back before Alice and Bob.
Next, he published in four installments “A few words on Secret Writing” — a rare and clever roadmap for encrypted text. A Satoshi-like move, some may say. The final cryptograms featured in this series, “The Tyler Cryptograms,” remained unsolved for over 150 years.
In 1843, Poe entered a short story called “The Gold Bug” into a writing contest. (I find it comforting to know that even the king of macabre had to submit his stuff.) Of course, he won. But what’s most memorable about this is that he used a cryptogram in his piece that launched its characters on a treasure hunt. It made the story engaging (while adding his signature creep factor) — and was enough to tip the vote in his favor.
“The Gold Bug” also served as a key source of inspiration for William F. Friedman, who would become head cryptographer of the NSA.
These certainly weren’t the only places where Poe included secret puzzles. A posthumous poem of his called “An Enigma” featured a hidden message encoded in the piece. And while many more authors of his time and thereafter included hidden messages in their works, Poe’s bullishness on cryptograms was arguably unparalleled.
If you’re looking for computer classes to tickle your brain, or perhaps you’re a crypto whiz who would love to get more technical with your expertise, I would definitely recommend learning the basics of cryptography. The class I’m taking is more challenging than I ever imagined and definitely a step up from my SQL introduction as an undergrad. But it is a lot like learning about secret codes and, therefore, extremely fulfilling — bigtime cypherpunk vibes. It’s also just helpful to have a bird’s eye view (quoth the Raven) into what structures digital currencies on a fundamental level.
I hope these topics don’t feel like too much of a stretch, but I really believe that some of blockchain and crypto’s greatest gems lie at the crossroads of literature and technology. What is the future without the past? What are zeros and ones without art?
Poe’s life was a testament to ingenuity and intrigue, and despite his struggles, he left an incredible mark on the world. His genius explores dark territories of the mind and of society where most people don’t dare explore.
It’s an attitude that most Bitcoiners I know share: the bravery to explore the unknown and adventure to great heights, perhaps risking immediate security or comfort along the way. The crypto community is tied together by belief in a better charter for humankind — one that embraces curious ideas which only a brave imagination can afford.
Plus, we often work in very cramped quarters.
I’ll leave you with a thought. Is it possible that Poe’s final substitution ciphers — solved by Terence Whalen, Jim Moore, and Gil Broza — could have any connection to the inception of Bitcoin? I have a couple of wild theories…what do you think?
NOTE: I am not a financial professional, and this is not financial advice. These posts are intended to be general in nature, not specific to any one situation, and aim to provide educational value.
Leutwyler, K. (2000, November 3). A cipher from Poe solved at last. Scientific American. Retrieved November 1, 2021. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-cipher-from-poe-solved/.
Morelli, R. (2018, May 3.) “Edgar Allen Poe and Cryptography.” Edgar Allan Poe and Cryptography. http://www.cs.trincoll.edu/\~crypto/historical/poe.html.
Pelling, Nick. (2008, May 13). "‘The e. a. poe cryptographic challenge’...” Cipher Mysteries. Retrieved November 1, 2021. https://ciphermysteries.com/2008/05/13/the-e-a-poe-cryptographic-challenge.
Seth. (2011, November 1). Edgar Allan Poe Cypher. Crypto Crap. https://cryptocrap.blogspot.com/2011/11/edgar-allen-poe-cipher.html#comment-form.