The history of cryptography – from rotor cipher machines to NFTs

Cryptography has exploded in the public eye thanks to blockchain technology, but its history goes much further than you might expect. Let’s explore the long sage of ciphered messages, that leads to what we love most - NFTs. logo
@enter.artPUBLISHED 11TH MAY 2022

Cryptography feels like a modern practice. Even outside the blockchain, the use of encryption to keep our personal data secure from hackers and predatory software makes it seem synonymous with modern computing. However, cryptography dates back thousands of years.

We can define cryptography as the use of ciphers and codes to protect information, and humans found clever ways of achieving this feat long before computers and electricity. Let’s explore the history of cryptography.

Cryptography in ancient times

Early forms of cryptography date back to most ancient civilizations we have records of. In most cases, early cryptography consisted of symbol replacement. The earliest examples on record are hieroglyphs carved onto the walls of the tomb of Khnumhotep II, an Egyptian noble who lived around 1900 BC. However, it isn’t clear that these hieroglyphs were intended to conceal information. That came a few hundred years later.

Around 1500 BC, a scribe from Mesopotamia used cryptography on a clay tablet to protect his recipe for a pottery glaze. The ancient Spartans encrypted messages by writing on parchment stretched around a cylinder. The recipient had to know the size of the cylinder to wrap the parchment around it and read the code.

Later, ancient Hebrews used substitution ciphers like Atbash to encrypt their alphabet. This was a simple monoalphabetic cipher which swapped specific letters for other letters. The Romans used a very similar method for their Caesar cipher.

Medieval cryptography

Well into the medieval era and Renaissance, simple substitution ciphers like Atbash and the Caesar cipher remained the norm in cryptography. However, cryptanalysis, the study of breaking cipher codes, began to develop in response. Al-Kindi, an Arab mathematician, created frequency analysis around 800 AD. This groundbreaking technique uses the frequency of occurring letters to solve substitution codes. This pushed cryptographers to seek out more advanced methods of cryptography.

Almost 700 years later, an Italian Renaissance man named Leone Alberti developed the more advanced polyalphabetic cipher, where a message could be encoded into two separate alphabets: the original alphabet the message was written in and another which the message appears in after being encoded. In order to crack a polyalphabetic code, a reader would have to know the original alphabet the message was written in.

Cryptography pre-WWII

Through the 19th century, cryptanalysts developed more sophisticated methods for solving encryptions. English mathematician Charles Babbage wrote an extensive analysis for solving polyalphabetic ciphers in the 1850s. Author Edgar Allen Poe challenged newspaper readers in Philadelphia to send him ciphers which he solved systematically, later writing an essay on cryptography that would remain relevant to the field through the World Wars.

Ciphered messages played a key role in World War I, when the Germans used encrypted naval codes to communicate about operations. The British Admiralty established Room 40, a cryptanalysis organization to intercept and interpret these codes. 

The biggest development from this era, however, came from Gilbert Vernam, an engineer who first proposed a teleprinter cipher in 1917. This device combined a paper tape key with a text message to produce a ciphertext. It acted as a prototype for electromechanical cipher machines.

WWII cryptography

World War II saw an explosion in the realm of cryptography. This was partially due to demand for encoded messages in the global conflict and partially due to the widespread adoption of electromechanical cipher machines.

One of the most famous cipher devices from this era was the German rotor cipher machine called Enigma. Enigma used rotating wheels to encode messages, making it extremely difficult to decipher without another Enigma. While actually developed in 1918 by engineer Arthur Scherbius, a Polish cryptographer named Marian Rejewski discovered how it worked in 1932, and in 1939 he shared his findings with Allied intelligence. This information proved crucial to victory for the Allies.

Modern cryptography and the rise of private keys

The rise of computers was a game changer for cryptography. 128-bit encryption is multitudes more powerful than analog ciphers, and it’s still the standard for many computer systems and personal devices.

In the 1970s, IBM focused their efforts on a “crypto group,” which created a block cipher to protect sensitive customer data. The US adopted this system as the national Data Encryption Standard, or DES in 1973. The introduction and publication of DES brought cryptography to the minds of the public, and helped start the cypherpunk movement, which was fundamental in shaping the crypto space today. But that’s a story for another time.

DES was used until 1997 when it was cracked. In 2000, it was replaced by the Advanced Encryption Standard, or AES, which came about in a public competition. It’s still widely used and available royalty-free today.

A few years after DES was first adopted, Martin Hellman and Whitfield Diffie wrote the Diffie-Hellman key exchange, a research paper which described a way to securely exchange cryptographic keys on a public channel. 

The use of both a public and private key was extremely groundbreaking, as old cryptography methods required a physical exchange. Essentially, one party could find another’s public key and encode a message using it. When the other party received the message, they could use a private key known only to them to decrypt it. Safe transfer of information was allowed without risk of being hacked.

Public-key cryptography and the DES public encryption standard paved the way for cryptography in the public domain. Before then, cryptography was almost exclusively a governmental field. It also set the stage for blockchain technology.

The early blockchain era

In 2008, public-key cryptography made its biggest development to date. Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym of a still unknown developer, published a paper online describing the concepts behind Bitcoin and blockchain technology. Nakamoto envisioned a system in which cryptography would support safe P2P transfers without the need for a third party like a bank or government. Nakamoto referred to an electronic coin as a chain of digital signatures, and each owner of a coin would transfer it to its next owner. They’d do this by digitally signing off on the previous transaction as well as the public key of the next owner.

As we now know, the creation of Bitcoin was only the beginning. Throughout 2008, Nakamoto furthered his plans, set up a Bitcoin exchange, transferred coins for the first time, and opened discussion forums to promote the technology.

By the time 2013 arrived, Bitcoin was well-known and gaining in popularity. February saw over a million dollars’ worth of sales in a month, and the coins only cost $22 each. In October, the first Bitcoin ATM opened in Vancouver. Not everyone was pleased, though. Countries like Thailand and China banned cryptocurrency altogether.

The rise of Ethereum 

2014 saw the advent of the Ethereum Foundation, and subsequently, the Ethereum blockchain. What made Ethereum so special was that it was the first blockchain to set its sights beyond just currency. Ethereum introduced the idea of smart contracts, which paved the way for all sorts of new decentralized applications (dApps).

In the years since, Ethereum has grown exponentially, and countless other blockchains have followed in its footsteps. But things haven’t always gone smoothly. In 2016, a bug in Ethereum’s code was exploited, causing a hard fork in the network. That same year, hackers found their way into the Bitfinex Bitcoin exchange and stole almost 120,000 coins. Despite the advanced cryptographical techniques involved in blockchain technology, there were plenty of kinks to work out.

Despite some setbacks, blockchain technology has only proven to become more popular, and new applications are found all the time. Though they existed earlier, 2017 saw the rise of NFTs on the Ethereum Network with the release of Cryptopunks, 10,000 randomly generated characters which were given to anyone with an Ethereum wallet. Since then, NFTs have exploded, expanding from simple digital images to songs, gaming content, virtual real estate and more. 

So where to go next?

As the popularity of blockchain assets spreads, marketplaces specializing in buying and selling them grow and evolve. Platforms like and have made it easy for users to exchange specific types of NFTs, and platforms like BSC (Binance Smart Chain) facilitate the use of smart contract-based applications. Each year sees new applications for digital assets, and we’re excited to see where they go next. 

Make sure to check out Why choose enter? An introduction to the enterverse to get all the details on our marketplaces, as well as Introducing, covering our upcoming marketplace for all things NFT. 

NFT Knowledge

Looking to learn more about NFTs? In this section you can learn more about how NFTs are revolutionizing the world.

View all


The AI Wars I - New Tools, Old Fears

While many artists and their audiences have embraced the recent developments of AI, it appears that the tables have turned. Why is the debate of AI so intense? Let’s find out in this two-part series.


The AI Wars II - Evolution of Creative Goods

To uncover what lies behind the current sentiment surrounding AI art, understanding the how's and why’s is essential. In the second part of The AI Wars, we take a deeper dive into the technology of AI and the arguments often used against it.


Web3 - What’s the buzz about?

What some believed was just a fad, is today shaping the way we approach everything from tech and finance to art and gaming. Web3 is on everybody's lips, and for good reason. In this article, we discover the essence of Web3, and why it’s important.