Monday, September 23, 2013

Lumbermans Standard Telegraph Code


In my radio research sometimes I unearth something so obscure I surprise even myself. Lumberman's Standard Telegraph Code is a artifact from another era of data transmission and data encryption. The book above is copyrighted to 1885. It's pre-broadcasting, pre-computer, pre-WWI and really a relic from another era of codetext cipher. (More here) Before things like ASCII and SSL, many codes were based on simple substitution as is this one. But this one is very specialized.  The Lumberman's Standard Telegraph Code is, and I quote:
"A practical system of telegraphing in cipher, especially adapted to the requirements of the lumber trade; with phrases and technical terms so arranged as to make it universally applicable to all branches of the trade, and interchangeable throughout all sections of the United States."
This edition was published in 1899, and it cost $3.00; which at the time was fairly pricey for a book. It had been in print as early as 1892. The preamble in my edition states that the purpose of the code was not secrecy but making business less expensive. Western Union had made a rule that when transmitting code, only words could be used, not numerals. This was probably more about billing practices than secrecy. The ruling also required that if prefixes were added to words to make them meaningless they would be billed at the rate of one word per letter. Western Union was trying to prevent what this guide was doing... shortening messages to save money. The company had strong incentive to try to stop it. In the year 1900, they carried 63.2 million messages on their network. More here.

So the purpose of the code was to condense a message through encryption. It was a simple form of analog data compression. An advertisement in the American Lumberman Magazine in 1899 sold it with the following language:
"The mail is quick, Lumbermans Standard Telegraph Code is quicker. It will save the cost of the book every few days. A telegram containing 50-100 words can usually be brought within 10 with it's use..."
The book includes tables of types of wood, sizes, lengths, thicknesses, grades, dates, times, numbers, percentages, railroads, and phrases. The word "Transfix" replaces the entire phrase "The stock inquired for is scarce here; will do best we can."  The cipher is structured sensibly variations on a word cover similar phrases
  • Rust - Use our judgement?
  • Rusticate - The prices quotes are good for this day only
  • Rustication - The prices quoted are good until notice
  • Rustiness - The prices quotes are subject to change without notice
  • Rustiness - The prices are subject to change occasioned by fluctuations in freights before receiving your order
  • Rusting - The____ are too green to deliver there at the price you name
  • Rustle - Think it best to sell now at what we can get
  • Rustling - Think market will be better
The book gives this simple example showing how it reduced the size of a message. the first message below is a commercial order for doors and windows as one might for building a house. It has 82 words by the Western Union definition.
"Ship by express, 10 8x10, 12-light, plain rail glazed windows; 5 14x32, 4-light check rail glazed windows, plowed and bored; 4 2-6x6-6 4 panel No. 1 doors, 1 1/8th inches thick; 6, 2-6x6-6 5 panel No. 2 doors 1 1/8th inches thick; 1 3x7 4 panel, circled top panel door, 1 3/4 inches thick, raised moldings 1 side; 4 pair blinds, 4-light, 14x32."
When compressed into the Lumberman's code it contains only 19 words:
"Refuse, mask, raindeer, raphelite. Martyrology, raidzy, ravage. Martyrdom, recusancy, redient. Marvel, recuperationaly, redient. Martin, redargutionky, redly. Martyrdom, ramble, ravage.
While some spellings have changes, and some words are now archaic... the code works. It's over 70% shorter. At the end of the book is an appendix listing hundreds of lumberyards ostensibly using the code. I'm sure they all made the Western Union enemies list but I'm not sure how they countered the maneuver.