Friday, April 29, 2005

Yardley, Pioneering Cryptographer

His name was Herbert Osborne Yardley, and he founded one of the American government’s very most top-secret agencies: the Black Chamber. It functioned during the 1920s, deciphering coded messages of interest to those charged with national security. This was a period of heightening edginess in Washington regarding the military “rising sun” -- Japan.

Yardley, an Indiana Hoosier, began his government career at 23, in 1912. That year, he was hired by the State Department as a code clerk. Intrigued by ciphers and curious as to his own ability to crack them, he one day undertook to translate a coded message that came across his desk for President Woodrow Wilson. He did it -- and soon was elevated high above his clerk’s post. International spies and codes proliferated during World War I, and by the time he was 30, Yardley had been made the nation’s chief cryptographer. He carefully studied codes and code breaking in Europe. Based on his unique expertise, he established the so-called Black Chamber in 1919.

During its first year, the agency decoded more than 800 telegrams pertaining to Japan alone. Over the next decade, until its dismantling in 1929, the Black Chamber decoded some 45,000 secret messages in dozens of languages.

Code-breaking machines and now computers replaced the early skull work of Yardley and his government colleagues. But he is respectfully remembered, and students of cryptography still refer to Yardley’s books on the subject.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Notes on Stoker

The real lives of classic mystery and gothic horror authors make for interesting reading. Their biographies usually (though not always) lack the weirdness and gore about which they wrote -- which sometimes makes them all the more fascinating.

Consider Bram Stoker (1847-1912). His novel Dracula inspired a lasting infatuation with vampirism, one of the very most repulsive forms of criminal deviance. Stoker’s personal story is horribly mundane, by contrast, but contains points of intrigue. Did you know, for example, that he was plagued with fragile health as a child, but as a student at Dublin University became a rugby star? That he once served as drama critic for the Dublin Mail -- without pay? That for many years he was business secretary for Sir Henry Irving, a famous English actor, and that he helped Irving manage the Lyceum Theatre in London? That his other books (which varied greatly in subject matter, from The Lair of the White Worm to a reminiscence of Irving) are all but forgotten, although several of his short stories (including “The Judge’s House”) continue to be popular among aficionados of the supernatural?

Stoker created a character who became much more famous than the actual work of literature. Of the millions worldwide who know of Count Dracula, probably only a small fraction ever read Stoker’s book. Many (if not most) can tell you who Dracula was . . . but not who Stoker was.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Amiable Convicts

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based not one but two Sherlock Holmes stories on the theme of outlaws returned from Australia to establish genteel, nondescript identities in rural England. In “The Gloria Scott,” a deported convict escapes while being transported to the lower continent. He travels the world before establishing himself as an English country judge . . . only to be plagued by a vile character come back from his past. A similar scenario plays out in “The Boscomb Valley Mystery,” wherein a one-time bushranger becomes a settled member of English gentry . . . again, only to be found out and abused by a surly visage from his lawless days.

Perhaps the message -- although not stated explicitly by Conan Doyle -- is that we’re all sinners with “a past.” Face up to it. Confess. Then move on.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

A Floating Figurehead

Elements of nature have wrought horrific and amazing feats. Some seem more mysterious than science fiction. For example, currents and winds have caused boats, ships and other items to drift incredible distances in relatively brief time frames.

An instance of drifting that challenged belief involved the Blue Jacket. The swift clipper ship, on a homeward voyage to America from New Zealand in March 1869, caught fire in the South Atlantic after rounding Cape Horn. It was destroyed, but fragments of it refused to be lost. Notably, its figurehead, a carving of a sailor, was found washed ashore almost three years later . . . half a world away, on an island off the western coast of Australia.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Bentley: Creator of the “Human” Detective

E.C. Bentley (1875-1956), a pioneering London writer of detective fiction, made his mark largely because of his annoyance with Sherlock Holmes. He (like many readers of Arthur Conan Doyle) ultimately decided the humorless, unemotional, automaton nature of Holmes simply wouldn’t do. Bentley’s fictional detective, Philip Trent, was certainly human. In Trent’s Last Case, Bentley’s first detective novel, the amateur sleuth fell in love with one of the suspects.

Trent’s Last Case, published in 1913, became quite popular -- but Bentley was not interested in developing his new hero. For more than 20 years, Bentley, a lawyer turned journalist, was content to write editorials for the Daily Telegraph and light verse for Punch and other periodicals. Not until 1936, after retiring from journalism, did he follow up with Trent’s Own Case. In 1938 he added a volume of short stories, Trent Intervenes.

Bentley is credited with beginning the trend away from classic, Holmsian-style detective fiction and with championing more “believable,” modern characters.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Grape Land or Grass Land?

It was called “Vinland” and it’s believed to have been a site the Vikings discovered on the eastern coast of North America. Leif Eriksson named it when his explorations, some historians believe, brought him to the Atlantic’s western shores approximately 1000 A.D. Eriksson may not have been the first Viking to see Vinland, and the locale is cloaked in mystery.

Where, exactly, was it? Robert Wernick, in The Vikings (Time-Life Books, 1979), wrote: “Precisely where the Vikings went, how long they stayed, what they did and why they left are pieces of a tantalizing puzzle.”

Eriksson named it Vinland (“wine land”) because his crew reportedly found grapes there -- real, wine-producing grapes (as contrasted with gooseberries, currants or other types of fruit). Hence a problem for historians: From the descriptions in old Norse records, they feel confident the Vikings at that time were exploring the northerly finger of Newfoundland. Grapes can’t grow in those latitudes.

Several theories have been put forth to explain the enigma. Some believe the Viking expeditions actually reached much farther south, to Nova Scotia or even New England. Others speculate the word “Vinland” alludes not to “wine land” but to “grass land” (which could have been found most anywhere). A few reckon Eriksson blatantly fabricated the vision of a foreign grape land in order to entice people from his home country to settle there.

History now records, incidentally, that Bjarni Herjulfsson, another Viking mariner, preceded Eriksson to the North American coast about 15 years earlier. But if Herjulfsson encountered the fruit of the vine, he made no known record of it.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Twice Vanished

In the annals of nautical drifters (seaworthy vessels found adrift, abandoned for no apparent reason) the experiences of the sailors aboard the British ship Ellen Austin in 1881 deserve special attention. They came upon a drifter. A prize crew claimed it for salvage . . . and themselves joined the lost realm of maritime drifters.

The Austin's crew found the aimlessly wandering schooner in the mid-Atlantic. It was seaworthy, and a precursory inspection revealed nothing out of the ordinary aboard -- no clue of possible violence. With a prize crew assigned, the derelict turned its bow and joined the Austin on a course toward Newfoundland.

A classic North Atlantic fog parted the vessels. A few days later, the men of the Austin saw the salvaged schooner heave into sight -- drifting oddly, as before. A boarding crew found the vessel seaworthy, yet abandoned . . . again.

Not a crewman remaining aboard the Austin could be persuaded to attempt sailing the derelict to port. Distraught over the loss of such a prize, but helpless to claim it, the captain of the Ellen Austin ordered it left to its own devices. It was not reported again.