The Ancient Greek scytale (rhymes with Italy), probably much like this modern reconstruction, may have been one of the earliest devices used to implement a cipher.
Before the modern era, cryptography was concerned solely with message confidentiality (i.e., encryption) — conversion of messages from a comprehensible form into an incomprehensible one, and back again at the other end, rendering it unreadable by interceptors or eavesdroppers without secret knowledge (namely, the key needed for decryption of that message). In recent decades, the field has expanded beyond confidentiality concerns to include techniques for message integrity checking, sender/receiver identity authentication, digital signatures, interactive proofs, and secure computation, amongst others.
The earliest forms of secret writing required little more than local pen and paper analogs, as most people could not read. More literacy, or opponent literacy, required actual cryptography. The main classical cipher types are transposition ciphers, which rearrange the order of letters in a message (e.g., 'help me' becomes 'ehpl em' in a trivially simple rearrangement scheme), and substitution ciphers, which systematically replace letters or groups of letters with other letters or groups of letters (e.g., 'fly at once' becomes 'gmz bu podf' by replacing each letter with the one following it in the English alphabet). Simple versions of either offered little confidentiality from enterprising opponents, and still don't. An early substitution cipher was the Caesar cipher, in which each letter in the plaintext was replaced by a letter some fixed number of positions further down the alphabet. It was named after Julius Caesar who is reported to have used it, with a shift of 3, to communicate with his generals during his military campaigns, just like EXCESS-3 code in boolean algebra.
Encryption attempts to ensure secrecy in communications, such as those of spies, military leaders, and diplomats. There is record of several early Hebrew ciphers as well. Cryptography is recommended in the Kama Sutra as a way for lovers to communicate without inconvenient discovery. Steganography (i.e., hiding even the existence of a message so as to keep it confidential) was also first developed in ancient times. An early example, from Herodotus, concealed a message - a tattoo on a slave's shaved head - under the regrown hair. More modern examples of steganography include the use of invisible ink, microdots, and digital watermarks to conceal information.
Ciphertexts produced by classical ciphers (and some modern ones) always reveal statistical information about the plaintext, which can often be used to break them. After the discovery of frequency analysis (perhaps by the Arab polymath al-Kindi) in the 9th century, nearly all such ciphers became more or less readily breakable by an informed attacker. Such classical ciphers still enjoy popularity today, though mostly as puzzles (see cryptogram). Essentially all ciphers remained vulnerable to cryptanalysis using this technique until the invention of the polyalphabetic cipher, most clearly by Leon Battista Alberti around the year 1467 (though there is some indication of earlier Arab knowledge of them). Alberti's innovation was to use different ciphers (i.e., substitution alphabets) for various parts of a message (perhaps for each successive plaintext letter in the limit). He also invented what was probably the first automatic cipher device, a wheel which implemented a partial realization of his invention. In the polyalphabetic Vigenère cipher, encryption uses a key word, which controls letter substitution depending on which letter of the key word is used. In the mid 1800s Babbage showed that polyalphabetic ciphers of this type remained partially vulnerable to frequency analysis techniques.
The Enigma machine, used in several variants by the German military between the late 1920s and the end of World War II, implemented a complex electro-mechanical polyalphabetic cipher to protect sensitive communications. Breaking the Enigma cipher at the Biuro Szyfrów, and the subsequent large-scale decryption of Enigma traffic at Bletchley Park, was an important factor contributing to the Allied victory in WWII.
Although frequency analysis is a powerful and general technique, encryption was still often effective in practice; many a would-be cryptanalyst was unaware of the technique. Breaking a message without frequency analysis essentially required knowledge of the cipher used, thus encouraging espionage, bribery, burglary, defection, etc. to discover it. It was finally explicitly recognized in the 19th century that secrecy of a cipher's algorithm is not a sensible or practical safeguard; in fact, it was further realized any adequate cryptographic scheme (including ciphers) should remain secure even if the adversary fully understands the cipher algorithm itself. Secrecy of the key should alone be sufficient for a good cipher to maintain confidentiality under attack. This fundamental principle was first explicitly stated in 1883 by Auguste Kerckhoffs and is generally called Kerckhoffs' principle; alternatively and more bluntly, it was restated by Claude Shannon as Shannon's Maxim — 'the enemy knows the system'.
Various physical devices and aids have been used to assist with ciphers. One of the earliest may have been the scytale of ancient Greece, a rod supposedly used by the Spartans as an aid for a transposition cipher. In medieval times, other aids were invented such as the cipher grille, also used for a kind of steganography. With the invention of polyalphabetic ciphers came more sophisticated aids such as Alberti's own cipher disk, Johannes Trithemius' tabula recta scheme, and Thomas Jefferson's multi-cylinder (reinvented independently by Bazeries around 1900). Several mechanical encryption/decryption devices were invented early in the 20th century, and many patented, among them rotor machines — most famously the Enigma machine used by Germany from the late 20s and in World War II. The ciphers implemented by better quality examples of these designs brought about a substantial increase in cryptanalytic difficulty after WWI.
The development of digital computers and electronics after WWII made possible much more complex ciphers. Furthermore, computers allowed for the encryption of any kind of data represented by computers in any binary format, unlike classical ciphers which only encrypted written language texts, thus dissolving much of the utility of a linguistic approach to cryptanalysis. Many computer ciphers can be characterized by their operation on binary bit sequences (sometimes in groups or blocks), unlike classical and mechanical schemes, which generally manipulate traditional characters (i.e., letters and digits) directly. However, computers have also assisted cryptanalysis, which has compensated to some extent for increased cipher complexity. Nonetheless, good modern ciphers have stayed ahead of cryptanalysis; it is typically the case that use of a quality cipher is very efficient (i.e., fast and requiring few resources), while breaking it requires an effort many orders of magnitude larger than before, making cryptanalysis so inefficient and impractical as to be effectively impossible.
A credit card with smart card capabilities. The 3 by 5 mm chip embedded in the card is shown enlarged in the insert. Smart cards attempt to combine portability with the power to compute modern cryptographic algorithms.
Extensive open academic research into cryptography is relatively recent — it began only in the mid-1970s with the public specification of DES (the Data Encryption Standard) by the US Government's National Bureau of Standards, the Diffie-Hellman paper, and the public release of the RSA algorithm. Since then, cryptography has become a widely used tool in communications, computer networks, and computer security generally. The present security level of many modern cryptographic techniques is based on the difficulty of certain computational problems, such as the integer factorisation or the discrete logarithm problems. In many cases, there are proofs that cryptographic techniques are secure if a certain computational problem cannot be solved efficiently. With one notable exception -— the one-time pad —- these proofs are contingent, and thus not definitive, but are currently the best available for cryptographic algorithms and protocols.
As well as being aware of cryptographic history, cryptographic algorithm and system designers must also sensibly consider probable future developments in their designs. For instance, continuous improvements in computer processing power have increased the scope of brute-force attacks, thus when specifying key lengths, the standard is similarly advancing. The potential effects of quantum computing are already being considered by some cryptographic system designers; the announced imminence of small implementations of these machines is making the need for this preemptive caution fully explicit.
Essentially, prior to the early 20th century, cryptography was chiefly concerned with linguistic patterns. Since then the emphasis has shifted, and cryptography now makes extensive use of mathematics, including aspects of information theory, computational complexity, statistics, combinatorics, abstract algebra, and number theory. Cryptography is also a branch of engineering, but an unusual one as it deals with active, intelligent, and malevolent opposition (see cryptographic engineering and security engineering); most other kinds of engineering need deal only with neutral natural forces. There is also active research examining the relationship between cryptographic problems and quantum physics (see quantum cryptography and quantum computing).