14 October 1998

18th Century Hacking

Deep in the dark ages before the Internet, you didn't have to call yourself 'The Analyser' to take liberties with communications systems. Interesting facts about the early British postal service - and the eighteenth-century mail hacks who sponged off it - have come to light with the rediscovery of Alvin Harlow's 1928 book Old Post Bags: The Story of the Sending of a Letter in Ancient and Modern Times, brought to our attention by the Dead Media Project.

In those days, "franking" was the name of the game, meaning the transmission of information by way of sophisticated encryptions on the outside of an envelope. The trick was to take advantage of the pre-Penny Black system of cash-on-delivery, where postmen demanded exorbitant fees from recipients. Outwitting the Post Office involved gleaning important information from, say, the way the address was written, then refusing the letter on the grounds that it was too expensive.

The poet Coleridge tells the story of the most rudimentary sort of frank, witnessed at an inn in the north of England. A postman offered a letter to the barmaid and demanded a shilling. Sighing melodramatically, she gave back the letter, protesting that she was too poor to pay for it. Coleridge, ever the gentleman, insisted on forking out the shilling, only to be shown afterwards that the envelope was empty. The letter's message was in fact contained in a number of subtle hieroglyphics alongside the address.

Such encryptions could be ingeniously complex. Harlow cites the example of business codes based on variants of the address, where each distinction conveyed an entirely different message, including "the state of the market, bids, quotations, orders, cancellations, notice of arrival and transmissions". Hundreds of such variations would be recorded in special code books. For example:

"William Henry Perkins, 97 Pump Court, London

William Henry Perkins, Pump Court, London Wm.

Henry Perkins, 97 Pump Court, London Wm.

Henry Perkins, Pump Court, London

William H. Perkins, Pump Court, London

William H. Perkins, Pump Court, London

W. Henry Perkins, 97 Pump Court London

W. Henry Perkins, Pump Court London"

"Will H. Perkins, Wm. H. Perkins, W.H. Perkins, William Perkins and so on were other variants; then a change could be made by putting Mr. before each of the names, or adding Esq. after them."

The Post Office cottoned on to such shenanigans, but proof of fraudulent activity was next to impossible. They did, however, crack a number of basic codes, and administered fines accordingly. Secret messages embedded within apparent instructions to the postman, such as "With speed" or "Postman, be you honest and true" were well known, as was the practice of highlighting certain words on a newspaper (newspapers were delivered free of charge) to convey a simple idea. Underlining the name of a Whig politician commonly meant "I am well", while doing the same thing with a Tory meant the opposite.

"Franks were the curse of the mail service then, not only in England, but in America and other countries as well," writes Harlow. "One twelfth of the letters sent from London went free. Members of Parliament and government officials by the hundred were authorised to frank letters, and few of them were adverse to handing out whole batches of letter paper with their names written thereon to friends and constituents."