How the forgotten ‘letter lock’ tricks shaped history
Today, when people think about protecting their messages from prying eyes, they tend to focus on digital communication, such as the “end-to-end encryption” of services such as WhatsApp or Signal. But letter locking shows that the urge to communicate securely is much older than many realize.
“As soon as humans walked around the Earth and wanted to document something, it was necessary to show discretion,” says Dambrogio. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians used seals for correspondence and notarization. And the documentation of Mesopotamia thousands of years ago was often enclosed in clay envelopes called bubbles.
These tips for inviolable communication have sometimes even played a role in crucial historical events. When Mary Queen of Scots locked her last letter, she was keenly aware that the powers in power could read her message and wanted her brother-in-law to know if that was the case. After all, a previously intercepted letter was the reason she faced her predicament: she had been caught authorizing a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I.
In this light, then, letterlocking becomes a new lens through which to look at history and the ways in which we have sought to connect with each other over the centuries. As Starza Smith points out about the importance of Mary’s final actions: “People often say that the last thing she did before she was executed was write a letter. This is not true! The last thing she did was lock a letter.”
*Richard Fisher is a senior reporter for BBC Future. Twitter: @rifish
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