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The New Boe Code
Commercial Traffic and Shipping Codes · 1937

The Boe Code and The New Boe Code were code books for the encoding and decoding of telegraphic messages (telegrams), compiled by Conrad Boe in Norway from 1925 onwards. It contains over 1000 pages with commercial, traffic and shipping codes as 5-letter groups. The books were published in Oslo (Norway) and Washington (USA). A complementary codebook, or name index, is known as the Q-list. It contains all 5-letter codes that have the letter 'Q' in it.
During the 1920s and 1930s, it was common practice to send textual messages (telegrams) between trading partners and shipping agents via Short Wave radio (SW) using Morse Code. Sending and receiving such messages was quite cumersome and required each individual letter to be encoded and decoded manually.

In order to shorten the transmission time and, hence, the cost of these telegrams, shipping broker Conrad Boe in Oslo (Norway) compiled a comprehensive list of 5-letter codes to replace common phrases, expressions and names.
The New Boe Code and (below it) The Q-List

The first edition was released in 1925 and was called The Boe Code. It contained 88,000 code words and was for many years considered 'the Bible' by the international shipping brokers. All codes are constructed in such a way that they allow the recipient to correct transmission errors. In 1937, Conrad Boe released a much improved and enhanced edition, called The New Boe Code.
It had well over 1000 pages, listing no less than 370,000 code words, sorted in alphabetic order. Contrary to military and intelligence codebooks, the codes of The New Boe Code are not secret.

With the ever increasing cost of sending wire and radio telegrams, commonly charged per single character, The New Boe Code was welcomed by the transport industry, lawyers and banks as it greatly reduced the cost of sending a message. This was especially true after the telegram rates had increased considerably when the new telegraph rules had come into effect in 1934 [2].
A random page of The New Boe Code book

The New Boe Code was compiled and redacted by Conrad Boe and his staff at 'The Boe Code Office'. It was published by Lars Swanström Publishing House in Oslo (Norway) and was sold internationally. In order to comply with the US Act of Congress of 4 March 1909, the American edition of the book was typeset, printed and bound in Washington D.C. (USA) and was registered with the US Copyright Office in 1937 [1]. The New Boe Code was heavily used all over the world for many years, until Morse Code was largely replaced by Teleprinters (Telex) in the 1950s.
The New Boe Code and (below it) The Q-List Main title Full title Tabs at the bottom row of the book Main index page, allowing selection between coding and decoding A random page of The New Boe Code book Close-up of some telegraphic codes The New Boe Code book

The New Boe Code book

1946 Reprint
Although the original Boe Code dates back to 1925, the much enhanced The New Boe Code was released in printed in 1937. This 1937 edition is shown above. It came with two indexes, or tabs: one at the bottom and one at the right, which were used for decoding and encoding respectively. In the book shown above, further indexes have been added, most likely by the original owner.

Due to its high popularity, The New Boe Code was reprinted in the US in 1946, just after WWII had ended. Apart from a few minor changes (e.g. the text on the book's cover) the contents are identical to the 1937 edition. More importantly however, the two indexes were omitted.
The Q-List
The Q-list is a complementary codebook to be used in combination with the New Boe Code book. It has approx. 230 pages and contains all 5-letter codes that have the letter 'Q' in it. These Q-codes were commonly used for the names of wireless radio stations, banks, (ship) lines, shipping houses, ships' names, etc., and works in the same way as, say, a telephone index (phone book).
The image on the right shows The Q-List on top of The New Boe Code book. It has a green cloth cover (unlike the Boe Code book that is bound in leather) and was available as an (optional) complementary book. Nevertheless it was often sold together with the big book, as shown here.

The Q-List contains more than 200 pages with all 5-letter codes that contain the letter 'Q'. Such codes were generaly used for names of banks, companies, cities, harbours, etc., unlike the codes of the main book that that were used to replace common phrases and expressions.
The New Boe Code with the Q-List on top

In some respect, the Q-List can be regarded as a world-wide index of names, much in the same way as a phone index was used. When compiling a message, the sender often had to use both books in order to make the message as short as possible. At the back of the book (page 218) all unused Q-codes are listed. These codes are reserved for private use and confidential (secret) information. Although such codes are breakable, they offer some level of security by obscurity.

Like with the main book, the Q-codes are constructed in such a way that they offer some level of error correction by including redundant information in each 5-letter group. A correction table is used to find any possible combinations. This is further explained with an example below.
  • Wireless radio stations
  • Commercial and shipping houses, lines, banks, etc.
  • Ship's names
  • Spare code words
  • Mutilation table for Q words
The New Boe Code with the Q-List on top The Q-List Q-List main title Random page of the Q-List Random page of the Q-List Radio stations Close-up of some radio stations Close-up of some national banks

The Q-List

Error correction
Despite their compactness, each 5-letter code contains redundant information, allowing the recipient to correct any transmissions errors. As not all possible codes are used, the last two letters often form a unique combination with the first 3 letters. By using the so-called Table for Correction of Mutilated Codewords, it was often possible to repair a garbled message. In most cases help of the human brain is required to place the possible solutions in the correct context.

This is best explained by an example from the book. Suppose the following sequence is received:


The first codeword MEFZG means 6 or 12 months certain, declared latest (-). The second code EVAWT cannot be found as it does not exist. Assuming that any of the 5 letters can be wrong, the correction table tells us that these are the only possible solutions:
Error Try Translation
EVAW- EVAWP without liability for damage not exceeding
EVA-T EVAZT about (-)% of cargo badly damaged
EV-WT EVOWT 5th January
E-AWT EYAWT about 5250 tons deadweight including bunkers
-VAWT BVAWT charterers agree bunkers at cost price

As the text from the second code has to fit in with the first code, we can conclude that EVOWT is the only possible solution. By practice, nearly all cases of mutilation of codewords can be correct in this manner. The corrected message from the example above reads:

6 or 12 months certain, declared latest 5th January.

The codes are built in such a way, that only one letter is possible in each position. For the codes from the Q-List, a different (but similar) correction table is available at the back. As this table is made especially for the Q-codes, it should not be used with the main code book and vice versa.
  1. Conrad Boe, The New Boe Code
    Oslo, Norway. Printed in the USA, 1937, by Judd and Detweiler, Inc., Washington D.C.

  2. Trond Lillestolen, Brokers' heritage
    TradeWinds (website), Oslo. Retrieved march 2015.

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