David Kahn. The Codebreakers. The Story of Secret Writing. 1181 pages.
Scribner. New York. Revised edition, 1996. $65.00 ISBN 0-684-8310-9.

Reviewed by Bob Bruen

It has been almost 30 years since the first edition of the this hefty tome was published. The new edition adds information right up to the Internet, or so the dust jacket says. The first edition of The Codebreakers, published in 1967, was a monumental work covering more history of secret communications in its 1,164 pages than any three, or maybe even four, other such books, if you could even find them. When I saw this new, updated edition in the bookstore, I snatched it up before someone else tried to wrestle it from my hands. I could hardly wait to get home to start reading.

The depths of disappointment are usually equal to the heights of expectations, but this one hit especially hard. The revised and updated edition consists of a sixteen page chapter at the end of the book, one photograph exchanged and a one page preface for the new edition. The additional chapter, which promises to present the new world created in the 30 years, adds almost nothing to the book. Moreover, the photographs in this new edition are not as sharp as the first edition's, nor is the contrast as high quality. I am not sure exactly why they were degraded for the new edition. The replacement of the photographs of a cuneiform cryptogram and a 6th century wood ostracon with Rembrandt's Belshazzar's Feast is a bit of a mystery. The cuneiform and Coptic writing is legible whereas the point of the Rembrandt is not. The painting shows a celestial hand inscribing a code, but you cannot see the letters in the reproduction.

All the illustrations are the same, the chapter notes have not changed, not even the limited bibliography is changed in the slightest. However, the two sets of photographs grouped between pages 268-269 and between pages 556-557 in the first edition are now between pages 270-271 and 558-559, respectively, in the new, updated edition. I guess that counts for something. And although there are no chapter notes for the new chapter, it did get indexed, increasing the index by a page.

It is hard for me to understand how David Kahn could produce such great work, then be involved in the likes of this. Perhaps he explains it best in the new preface when he states:

"At the same time, the absorption of Macmillan, the original publisher, by Simon & Schuster brought a young, energetic editor named Scott Meyers to handle The Codebreakers. He saw that I could fulfill my obligations to cryptology and at the same time help the book sell better by incorporating the new material as a single chapter."

Kahn acknowledges that a lot has happened since 1967 in the world of cryptology. It is a shame he did not put the same effort into it as he he had for the rest of the history. It would have been worth buying. But since this is not the case, if you liked the first edition, then you will like the new edition (except for the diminished quality of the photographs and the $65.00). However, if you did not purchase the first edition then this edition is worth acquiring.