The Chaocipher revealed! from Cipher Mysteries

July 5, 2010 | Cryptography | By: Mark VandeWettering

Stumbling back through articles in Slashdot, I found a pretty nifty article on one of my favorite subjects: historical cryptography. The story goes that back in 1918, a cipher system/machine was invented by John F. Byrne. Rumor says that it was very strong, and yet could be implemented using a mechanism that would fit in a cigar box. The details of this invention were never publicly released. However, recently the widow of Bryne’s son, John Byrnes Jr., has decided to donate his notes to the National Cryptological Museum, and the first publications are beginning to trickle out. Moshe Rubin has a new paper that details the working of the algorithm in sufficient detail that it should be possible to write an implementation in whatever language you like for experimentation. It’s too late for me to start today, but expect a Python reference implementation in the next few days:

The Chaocipher revealed! | Cipher Mysteries.

A cursory glance over the implementation suggests that the key space is basically 26! * 26! or about:


By comparison, the German Army Enigma (three rotors) had a keyspace of only 562,064,881,159,999,426,560, and the Navy Enigma a keyspace which was only 1000x larger. So if all things were equal, we might expect that the Chaocipher was a lot harder to crack. But all things are probably not equal. I’ll be pondering this over the next few days.