He is of interest to cryptographers because he wrote a book called ‘Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger’, which is described in David Kahn's history ‘The Codebreakers’ as ‘the first book in English on cryptography’. It is much more than that: it is a treatise on the state of the art in seventeenth century telegraphy.
Wilkins describes a number of optical and acoustic techniques. He explains how the letters of the alphabet can be represented as five bits each and then transmitted using any available means – such as two different bells, or a musket shot for ‘0’ and a cannon shot for ‘1’. He goes on to what may be the first systematic treatment of coding in different number bases (binary and ternary). This technology evolved into the chains of semaphore stations used by both Britain and France in the Napoleonic wars, and they in turn stimulated the development of the electric telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century. He also speculates on whether a universal language could be constructed; this inspired Roget's thesaurus, and (much later) Esperanto.
In passing, Wilkins explains how to protect telegraph messages against being understood by hostile observers. As well as showing how to break simple substitution ciphers, and introducing various geometrical enciphering schemes, he proposes the use of nulls to make cryptanalysis harder. He not only launches the subject of cryptology into the English literature, but introduces the words ‘cryptographia’ and ‘cryptologia’ to the English language. The book ends with two pages on cryptography policy that are still pertinent today. His conclusion is that ‘If all those useful Inventions that are liable to abuse, should therefore be concealed, there is not any Art or Science which might be lawfully profest’.
Here are images of page 171 and page 172, courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.
John Wilkins was born on the 1st January 1614, the son of an Oxford watchmaker. He became an undergraduate at Magdalen Hall when he was only 13 and graduated MA in 1634. He sided with the republican faction becoming chaplain to a series of anti-Stuart noblemen, and wrote `Mercury' in 1641 at the age of 27. The Civil War broke out the following year, and when it ended in 1648 he was made Warden of Wadham College, a former royalist stronghold in Oxford. Although this was a political appointment – he was awarded his doctorate only the following year – he proved to be an able and vigorous academic, writing on a huge range of practical topics ranging from the design of submarines to the possibility of travel to the moon. His mission in life was to demolish the Aristotlean view of the world and usher in an age of experimental reason. The meetings of experimental scientists he held in Wadham during the 1650s made the college one of the scientific foci of Europe and later developed into the Royal Society. This was the honeymoon period of Western science. As the shackles of classical scholarship fell away, everything seemed possible for a while – until Newton spoiled the fun by discovering inertia in 1667.
Although Wilkins married Cromwell's sister Robina in 1656, his appointment at Trinity in 1659 was at the demand of the fellowship there, and his subsequent sacking by Charles the Second was strongly protested by them. He then became Secretary of the Royal Society and, in 1668, having made his peace with the King, finally became Bishop of Chester. He died on the 19th November 1672.
The most comprehensive online reference on Wilkins is in Wikipedia; an essay by Jorge Luis Borges focuses on work he did on universal language (which is still cited in scientific publications in our own age.) The other online source of which I'm aware is here - part of a series of web pages on the history of mathematics.
My main sources for this page were the Dictionary of National Biography, vol LXI pp 264-7 (which has a list of primary sources); `Wadham College' by CSL Davies and J Garnett (1994, ISBN 1-85967-022-9); and his `official' biography, `John Wilkins 1614-1672', by Barbara Shapiro, University of California Press, 1969 (which rather focuses on the theological and political aspects of his life).
Return to Ross Anderson's home page