“Despot am exceedingly busy bay all kinds quo perhaps bracken half of it mince moment promptly of purchases.”
(Loose Translation: “…I have bought 500,000 pounds of wool…”)
– Message Sent By Mr. Frank Primrose, 6-16-1887, to his agent in Ellis, Kansas
“Destroy am exceedingly busy buy all kinds quo perhaps bracken half of it mince moment promptly of purchase.”
(Loose Translation: “…Buy 500,000 pounds of wool…”)
– Message Received By Mr. Frank Primrose’s agent
On June 16, 1887, Mr. Frank Primrose, a wool merchant, walked into the Philadelphia Western Union office with an encoded message for his agent dispatched to Ellis, Kansas to purchase wool. You see, if he simply sent the message in plaintext, it could be intercepted and his commercial advantage, well, dispatched. So, Primrose and his agent contrived in advance a private cypher. The cyphered message was sent, but no reply message was asked for, or paid for. Western Union would, for a fee, send a return message, same as the first, to confirm proper transmission. Instead of sitting tight for further word, (because Primrose had just purchased all the wool he needed), after receiving the message, his agent began to buy up all the wool he could get his hands on, assuming those were his instructions. However, Western Union made a mistake in transcribing only one letter of the message, (while there were a few mistakes, the transposition of only one letter, scribbling “buy” instead of “bay” – the letter “A” is represented in Morse code as “dot dash” and “U” is “dot dot dash,” thus a difference of only one dot). This extra dot made a huge difference in the content of the message. “Bay,” in the secret code, meant “I have bought,” while “buy,” meant, well, to do that very thing. All of this cost Mr. Primrose $20,000.00, a handsome sum in those times, and he sued Western Union for their mistake.