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Peterson International Code
Commercial trade cipher book 3rd edition · 1929

The Peterson International Code, also referred to as the signal PETCO, was a codebook for encoding and decoding telegraphic messages (telegrams), 1 published in 1929 (3rd edition) by Ernest E. Peterson of Peterson Cipher Code Corporation in New York (USA). It contains well over 1000 pages filled with 5-letter codes, and was used for messaging in international trade.

In telegraphy, messages were known as cables and consisted of a number of 5-letter groups knows as words. According to the applicable Cable Regulations – active from 1 October 1929 – the first word of each cable had to contain at least two vowels, 2 whilst the second word had to contain at least one vowel, or vice versa.

The book contains frequently used words and expressions, but also the names of a plethora of trading companies, banks, manufacturers, etc., all in alphabetical order and converted to a 5-letter code that contains exactly two vowels.

Towards the back — from page 1001 onwards — a special section is dedicated to the conversion of the numbers 00000 to 99999 to 5-letter groups, each of which contains exactly one vowel (a, e, i, o, u, y). Mistakes in the transmitted letter groups can be detected with the help of a three-table Error Detector [C], printed at the beginning of the book. The book featured here was used by the Dutch trading company Rhodius-Koenigs Handel-Maatschappij N.V. in the Netherlands.

It appears that (parts of) the Peterson International Code were copied from a copyrighted cable and telegraphic code that had been published previously by John W. Hartfield in 1912. Of the 47,397 phrases in Peterson's book, about 9,923 are identical to the ones in Hartfield's book, including sorting order, punctuation details and mistakes. On 19 July 1937, a New York judge confirmed the earlier court decision that Peterson had violated Hartfield's copyright and ordered him to pay $5000 in damages, plus $2000 for Hartfield's lawyer, plus the cost of the trial [10].

 Read the verdict

  1. Telegrams are short messages that were sent by telegraph, courier, radio (typically in morse code) or teleprinter (telex), either directly (end-to-end) or via an intermediary such as a telecom provider. As a telegram was traditionally sent over a wired telegraph network, it is also known as a cable or wire.
  2. In this context, a vowel is defined as one of the letters a, e, i, o, u, y.
    Note the rather uncommon use of the ' y ' as a vowel.

Peterson International Code 3rd Edition 1929
A page of the Peterson International Code 3rd edition 1929
Cover page
Peterson International Code and the Israeli telegram
Telegram (page 1)
Telegram (page 2)
Translation of the second cipher group
1 / 7
Peterson International Code 3rd Edition 1929
2 / 7
A page of the Peterson International Code 3rd edition 1929
3 / 7
Cover page
4 / 7
Peterson International Code and the Israeli telegram
5 / 7
Telegram (page 1)
6 / 7
Telegram (page 2)
7 / 7
Translation of the second cipher group

Example of a real message
New York to Tel Aviv · 1948

In 2017, German collector Karsten Hansky obtained a real telegram that was sent on 5 June 1948 from New York (USA) – via London (UK) – to Tel Aviv (Israel), less than three weeks after the State of Israel had been proclaimed 1 [3]. It was addressed to GOVTT MEMISRAEL TELAVIV 2 — the Government of Israel — and contains a mixture of 5-letter cipher groups and cleartext words.

As it was likely that the telegram was created by means of a (civil) codebook, Karsten [3] tried to decipher it with the help of the four different commercial codebooks that he had in his collec­tion: ABC 6th edition, Bentleys Complete Phrase, Marconi International and Western Union.

As none of these yielded intelligible output, he sent copies of the telegram to German crypto-expert, blogger and friend Klaus Schmeh, who posted a request in one of his blogs [4]. Karsten also shared the contents of the telegram with telegraphic code experts on a Yahoo forum.

Just three weeks later, Karsten received a solution from (then) Professor John McVey, who iden­tified it as the Peterson International Code. The image above shows how the second cipher group (BIKUG) is translated to the word CABLE. After receiving a word-for-word translation of the cipher groups from Professor John McVey, Karsten was able to reconstruct the following cleartext [5]:

Cable sent from Haifa, Palestine 28th May. Currency of board regrets unable to agree with proposal destruction of notes. They are prepared to accept the following arrangements. Notes to be cut in half vertically, one half consigned uninsured to us and if notes from unissued stocks ar preserved in serial orders om parcel giving indication of serial numbers and values, each bundle is to be retained by you and dispatched only when advice received from safe arrival of first consignment. Board will pay out on arrival of first half of notes on our bank certificates of the value of contents 1127P bundles to be checked later and bank is responsible for shortage of forgery. Cable whether you agree this procedure and if so exact amount of involved. This cable is being sent in duplicate of one in accordance with FRIEDBERGS and ANGLO PALESTINE BANK.
This cable is likely about the replacement in 1948 of the existing Palestine bank notes by the newly issued Palestine Pound that had just been issued by the Anglo-Palestine Bank on behalf of the Israeli Government [6]. A certain amount of this money was shipped from Haifa (Israel) to New York (USA) [7]. The destruction of the old bank notes was the responsibility of the Palestine Bank.

It should be noted that the new Palestine Pound notes were printed by the American Banknote Company in New York (USA) before the State of Israel officially existed. For this reason, the name of the American Banknote Company and the marking 'Legal Tender' were omitted from the bank notes. The text 'Legal tender for payment of any amount' was later added in a separate printing run [9]. The new Palestine Pound was a legal tender from 17 August 1948 to 23 June 1952 [9].

  1. The State of Israel was proclaimed on 14 May 1948.  Wikipedia
  2. MEMISRAEL was the codename for the STATE OF ISRAEL [8].

Rhodius-Koenigs Handel-Maatschappij
According to stamps on the first pages, the book shown here has serial number 18717 and was used by Rhodius-Koenigs Handel-Maatschappij N.V. in Amsterdam (Netherlands) — a company that had been established in The Netherlands in 1920 by German banker Franz Wilhelm Koenigs (1881-1941) and his Belgian nephew Rhodius to circumvent the trade restrictions that had been imposed on Germany by the Allies after World War I as a result of the Versailles Treaty. Rhodius-Koenigs mainly acted as a banking company that provided credit to German industry [2].

  • Rhodius-Koenigs Handel-Maatschappij NV
    Keizersgracht 117-121
    Amsterdam (Netherlands)
Koenigs (also: Königs) was the acting director of the company and an avid collector of modern art. Over the years he assembled a large and complete collection of drawings and paintings, colloquially known as the Koenigs-Collection. After the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression, Koenigs had some financial trouble. He took a loan from Jewish banker Lisser & Rosenkranz (L&R) for the amount of fl. 1.3 million, using his collection as surity.

On 2 April 1940, a month before the German invasion of The Netherlands, L&R was liqui­dated in fear of German confiscation, after which the Koenigs-Collection was sold to Dutch entre­preneur Van Beuningen. The latter donated part of it to Museum Boijmans 1 in Rotterdam (Netherlands) but sold some of it to Nazi-Germany in January 1941. Shortly after the German invasion on 10 May 1940, Koenigs was briefly detained by the Germans, but was released after he had given up directorship of Rhodius-Koenigs Handel-Maatschappij NV. He died unexpectedly on 6 May 1941 when he fell between the train and the platform at the train station in Köln (Germany) [2].

Bank Van Vloten & De Gijselaar
After the war, the company was under investigation of being influenced by the Germans, and had trouble getting its dollar-funds released [12][13]. But as former director/owner Koenigs had always been a fierce opponent of the Nazis, the obstructions were eventually removed. On 22 January 1947, the name of the company was changed to Bank Van Vloten & De Gijselaar NV [14].

 Balance sheet per 31 December 1946

Labouchere & Co.
On 1 January 1954, Bank Van Vloten & De Gijselaar was merged with Labouchere & Co NV [15], 2 after which the Peterson International Code shown above ended up in the latter's posession. Around 1986, by which time the book had been dusting away on a shelf for quite some years, it was decided that it was no longer needed. An employee saved it from the waste bin and guarded it for the next 36 years. On 22 September 2022 it was donated to Crypto Museum [1].

  1. Today known as Museum Boijmans van Beuningen.
  2. In 1976, American bank JP Morgan acquired 50% of Labouchere & Co., and continued as Bank Morgan Labouchere. In 2001, Labouchere was merged with Van Kempen & Co to become Dexia Nederland [16].

About Peterson
  • Peterson Cipher Code Corporation
    Ernest E. Peterson
    238 Water Street
    New York
Other codebooks from Peterson
  • 1923
    Peterson's International Banking Code Directory
  • 1951
    Peterson International Code Signal-P4
  • 1958
    Peterson International Code Signal-P4
  1. Peterson International Code
    3rd Edition, 1929. Serial number 18717.
    Distributed by Rhodius-Koenigs Handel-Maatschappij NV.
    Used by Labouchere Bank (Netherlands, later: JP Morgan).

  2. Peterson International Code - Introduction
    Extracted from [A].

  3. Peterson International Code - Error detector
    Extracted from [A].
  1. Richard van de Wouw, Peterson International Code S/N 18717 - THANKS !
    Crypto Museum 23 September 2022.

  2. Wikipedia (Netherlands), Franz Koenigs
    Visited 12 November 2023.

  3. Karsten Hansky, Original Telegram sent with Peterson Code on 5 June 1948
    Crypto Museum, 12 November 2023.

  4. Klaus Schmeh, Who can decipher this encrypted telegram from 1948?
    Cipherbrain blog, 11 April 2017.

  5. Klaus Schmeh, Encrypted telegram from 1948 deciphered
    Cipherbrain blog, 5 May 2017.

  6. Wikipedia, Palestine Pound
    Visited 12 November 2023.

  7. Chaim Weizmann, Who's Who In the Provisional Government of Israel
    The American Jewish Times, Volume XIV, October 1948, Number 2, p. 6.

  8. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948
    Volume V, The Near East, South Asia, and Africa (in two parts) Part 2.
    US Government, Washington, 1976.

  9. Israel Coins and Medals Corp., One Palestine Pound - Used
    Visited 12 November 2023.

  10. Hartfield v. Peterson
    Appeal from the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York.
    19 July 1937.

  11. Rhodius-Koenigs Handel-Maatschappij to Nederlandsche Bank
    Request for approval of name change.
    22 August 1946. 1

  12. Internal note of Nederlandsche Bank about Rhodius-Koenigs Handel-Maatschappij
    Internal document about German influence.
    1 February 1947. 1

  13. Th. Delbrük to Nederlandsche Bank
    Request to release dollar dollar funds of Bank Van Vleuten & De Gijselaar
    previously known as Rhodius-Koenigs Handel-Maatschappij.
    17 February 1947. 1

  14. Public Limited Company Bank van Vloten en de Gijselaar
    Official publication about the name change of 22 January 1947.
    Staatscourant, 2 April 1947, no. 65. 1

  15. Bank Van Vloten en De Gijselaar NV
    Announcement of merger with Labouchere.
    1 January 1954. 1

  16. Freddy van Mulligen, Kempen en Labouchere fuseren to Dexia Nederland
    Morningstar, 22 Mei 2001

  17. Bank Van Vloten en De Gijselaar, Balans per 31 December 1946
    Klijnveld, Kraayenhof en Co., 6 August 1947. 1
  1. Document kindly provided by Richard van de Wouw [1].

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