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Voynich Manuscript, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

5 Historic Codes Yet to Be Cracked

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Voynich Manuscript, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Edgar Allan Poe, in a July 1841 article for Graham's Magazine, wrote that while people tend to think it's a relatively simple thing to create an uncrackable secret code, in fact "it may be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve." That was easy for him to say. Shortly after his premature death, Poe's friend the Rev. Warren H. Cudworth recalled that the author's ability to "unravel the most dark and perplexing ciphers was really supernatural." The rest of us get stumped sometimes. Here are five codes and ciphers that have stymied human ingenuity for decades, centuries, even millennia.

1. THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT

Nude women dealing with pipes.Voynich Manuscript, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. (The History Blog)

The Voynich Manuscript has been puzzling emperors, antiquarians and cryptologists for at least 400 years. It's an illuminated manuscript of 240 vellum pages written by an unknown author in an unknown language. Vibrant illustrations of plants and astronomical and astrological charts suggest the volume may be an alchemical, magical, or scientific text. The calfskin pages were radiocarbon dated to between 1404 and 1438. While the iron gall ink has not been dated, since there is no erased earlier writing on the pages, it's likely the manuscript was written around the same time.

Researchers believe Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1576-1612) acquired the manuscript in the late 16th century and gave it to his personal physician and pharmacologist Jacobus Sinapius to see if he could make heads or tails of it. He couldn't. Neither could Czech alchemist Georg Baresch, Bohemian physician Johannes Marcus Marci and Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. After Kircher got the book from Marci in 1665, the manuscript disappears from the historical record until 1912 when antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich found it in a chest of books the Jesuits were trying to sell at the Villa Mondragone in Frascati, Italy. Voynich would dedicate the rest of his life to deciphering the manuscript. Although he failed, at least his efforts secured him the naming rights.

They also garnered him posthumous accusations of fraud as some people believed the whole book was a hoax devised by Voynich himself. Radiocarbon dating put paid to that theory, as the odds of anyone finding that much fresh, unused 15th century vellum to cover with fantastical writing and drawing are slim to none. Professional codebreakers in both World Wars and one Cold one tried their hand at cracking the Voynich code without success. (You can read mental_floss's story about recent attempts to crack it here.)

It's not just the writing that has proven impossible to crack: some of the drawings are ciphers too. There are 113 unidentified plant species depicted in the manuscript, and nobody knows what the female nudes striking curious poses in bodies of water or with odd pipe systems are supposed to mean.

Do you think you're better than the imperial court of Rudolf II, the greatest cryptographers of the 20th century and pretty much everyone else? You can try your hand at cracking the Voynich Manuscript on the website of Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

2. PAPYRUS OXYRHYNCHUS 90

PapyrusOxyrhynchus 90. "The Oxyrhynchus Papyri," Grenfell and Hunt, 1898.

In 1896, archaeologists Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt discovered thousands of papyrus fragments in a garbage dump outside Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Preserved by the dry desert heat, the papyri recorded details of daily life (receipts, insurance claims, loan notes, personal letters), fine literature (large sections of lost Euripides plays, summaries of seven lost books by Livy, a poem by Sappho), and scriptures—gospels both canonical and apocryphal—from the 1st to the 6th century CE.

Papyrus 90 is one of the mundane daily life records, a receipt for a deposit of wheat in the public granary dating to 179-80 CE. What makes it not mundane are the last two lines. They're written in Greek characters like the rest of the papyrus, but they're not Greek words. Grenfell and Hunt noted when they published the papyrus that it wasn't a Graecized version of Demotic script (the Egyptian "document writing" language) either. It appears to be a cryptogram, some wheat deposit intelligence that demanded secrecy.

A transcription of the text is available for the intrepid Greek scholar/cryptographer here.

3. KING CHARLES I AND QUEEN HENRIETTA-MARIA'S LETTER

Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath, 1632, by Anthony vanDyck. Archbishop's Castle and Gardens, Kroměříž. (The History Blog

King Charles I of England had many secrets to keep and many enemies to keep out of his secrets. Much of his correspondence was peppered with ciphers to keep prying Parliamentarian eyes out of his business. Charles's ciphers kept some secrets so ably that historians didn't realize until a few years ago that a) he ever talked dirty, and b) he planned "a swiving" (an obscene word for sex) with the redheaded stepdaughter of one of his courtiers while imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle in 1648.

During the First English Civil War (1642–1646), he and his beloved wife Henrietta-Maria were apart for long stretches. In the beginning she was in The Hague trying to drum up political support for the Royalist cause and to hock the Crown Jewels to fund her perpetually-broke husband's war. By March of 1645, with the tides of war having turned against them, Henrietta-Maria was back in her hometown of Paris.

Throughout their separation they wrote to each other assiduously, and they weren't whispering sweet nothings. Henrietta was deeply involved in her husband's governance and for all intents and purposes was a continental branch of Charles I's court. These letters were replete with political machinations, military plans, and perhaps most relevantly for a Protestant England that was deeply suspicious of the Catholic Henrietta-Maria, promises to liberalize England's anti-Catholic laws.

On March 5, 1645, Charles sent a new cipher to Henrietta-Maria via a trusted courier named Pooly. A month later in a letter to his wife dated April 8, he used the cipher:

In a word, when I know none better (I speak not now in relation to business), then 3 9 8 270 55 5 7 67 18 294 35 69 16 54 6 38 1 67 68 9 66: thou mayest easily judge how thy conversation pleased me.

[note] The little that is here in cipher is in that which I sent to thee by Pooly.

After the Battle of Naseby on June 14, 1645, Charles and Henrietta's correspondence was confiscated and published by the Parliamentarians. His letter of March 5 was revealed to be something of a bombshell: He authorized her to promise in his name to anyone useful that "I will take away all the penal laws against the Roman Catholicks in England as soon as God shall enable me to do it so al by their means I may have so powerful assistance as may deserve so great a favour and enable me to do it."

So that April cipher could be an expression of affection or intimacy (he probably wasn't talking about swiving her, though), or it could have been a whole other kind of conversation, like some payoff from that promise, that pleased King Charles. We won't know until someone cracks it.

4. THE DORABELLA CIPHER

The Dorabella Cipher in Elgar's own hand. (The History Blog)

Composer Edward Elgar may be best known today as the accompaniment to every graduation ceremony with Pomp and Circumstance, but he was also a fan of cryptographic arts. He expressed his ciphering talent in an addendum to a letter his wife wrote on July 14, 1897. The letter was a thank you note to the Penny family at whose home the Elgars had just spent a convivial few days. Elgar had struck up a friendship with the daughter of the family, Dora Penny, and he added a postscript to his wife's letter directed to Dora.

At first glance it looks like group of squiggles at different angles reminiscent of the universal comic book symbol for dizziness, but each character is actually composed of one, two, or three semicircles tilted in eight different directions. Dora couldn't crack it, so she put the letter in a drawer for the next 40 years until she published it in her memoirs in 1937. Since then, people have tried to solve the Dorabella Cipher with some pretty wacky results.

Tim S. Roberts thinks he's cracked it with a simple substitution cipher (you can find a PDF explaining his solution here):

"P.S. Now droop beige weeds set in it – pure idiocy – one entire bed! Luigi Ccibunud luv'ngly tuned liuto studio two."

The subject, Roberts believes, refers to an earlier letter or conversation in which Edward and Dora discussed his excessive pruning of his garden. Without this extremely obscure conversation, the solution makes no sense at all, and frankly, even with it only the first sentence makes sense. He also had to jiggle things to make them fit. Some parts are straight substitution, others require letters to be switched or added. He only glosses over what "Ccibunud" might mean, saying that Elgar loved the Italian composer Luigi Cherubini growing up, and Dora Penny was said to have had a stutter, so Elgar was teasing her over her pronunciation of an Italian composer that apparently she introduced a random d into. There's also no character for the i in studio. He just put that in to make it form a word.

When the Elgar Society held a Dorabella Cipher Competition in 2007 to celebrate Elgar's 150th birthday (and again the next year), none of the solutions were accepted because although several seemed to be very well reasoned, in the end, "the results read as a disconnected chain of bizarre utterances, such as an imaginative mind could conjure up from any group of random letters." So far all the proposed solutions seem to fall into this category. And there's one final twist: A key created by Elgar in the 1920s—which, according to New Scientist, appeared in an exercise book and "listed the symbols used in the Dorabella cipher matched against the letters of the alphabet"—doesn't yield anything that makes sense.

5. CARRIER PIGEON NURP 40 TW 194'S FINAL MESSAGE

Carrier Pigeon NURP 40 TW 194's final message // The History Blog

In 1982, David and Anne Martin found the remains of a bird during renovation of the fireplace of their home in Bletchingley, Surrey. One of its skeletonized legs had a red plastic capsule attached to it, marking it as a World War II military carrier pigeon that picked the wrong roost on its way to deliver a message and died in the chimney. Inside the capsule was the original coded message—27 groups of five letters with some numerals at the end—written on a scroll the size of a rolling paper.

It took years before anyone in government could be persuaded to take a look at the cipher. In 2010, experts at Bletchley Park, a museum that was the headquarters of British Intelligence's codebreakers during World War II, finally checked it out. They were not able to crack it, but they did discover that it must have been an important missive. None of Bletchley Park's classified MI6 pigeons carried coded messages during the war. Given Bletchingley's location half way between Normandy and Bletchley Park and just five miles from Field Marshal Montgomery's headquarters at Reigate where the D-Day landings were planned, it's possible that Pigeon NURP 40 TW 194 was carrying very sensitive information indeed.

A few weeks after the story broke, the media reported that Ontario history buff Gord Young claimed to have cracked the code thanks to his great-uncle's World War I Royal Flying Corp aerial observers book. His solution was rough around the edges, however. He wasn't able to decipher some of it, and several of the 27 groups he interpreted as improvised acronyms with no antecedents in the military record. He may have misinterpreted some of the letters—mistaken a U for a W, for instance—and there are some painfully awkward, redundant phrases like "Determined where Jerry's headquarters front posts. Right battery headquarters right here. Found headquarters infantry right here. Final note, confirming, found Jerry's whereabouts." That's a lot of repetitive verbiage to take up space on a cigarette paper.

Bletchley Park didn't think the solution was the right one. Then, the cryptological world discovered that Young had never intended to present an actual answer—he was just trying to help move the process along. So until a World War II code book is found with a proper key, Bletchley Park doesn't think anyone is going to be able to crack the pigeon's code.

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The Long, Strange Story of Buffalo Bill's Corpse
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You probably know William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, as the long-haired Wild West icon who turned the frontier experience into rip-roarin’ entertainment. But the story of Buffalo Bill’s body and its many burials is almost as outrageous as the man himself.

When Cody died of kidney failure in January 1917, his body ended up on a mountain outside of Denver, Colorado—a counterintuitive choice given his close ties to the town in Wyoming that bore his last name. Cody, Wyoming was founded in the 1890s with help from Buffalo Bill, who employed many of its residents and was responsible for its tourism business. It might seem natural that he’d be buried in the place he’d invested so much in, but he wasn’t. And that’s where the controversy began.

Though Cody spent much of his time in the town named after him, he also loved Colorado. After leaving his family in Kansas when he was just 11 to work with wagon trains throughout the West, he headed to Colorado for the first time as a 13-year-old wannabe gold prospector. During his short time in the area, he chased the glittery fortunes promised by Colorado’s 1859 gold rush. Even after leaving the territory, his traveling vaudeville show, which brought a glamorous taste of Wild West life to people all over the United States, took him back often. Later in life, he frequently visited Denver, where his sister lived. He died there, too—after telling his wife he wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain.

The mountain, located in Golden, Colorado, has a commanding view of the Great Plains, where Buffalo Bill experienced many of his Wild West adventures. It was also a place to contemplate the giant herds of buffalo that once roamed the West, and from whom Cody took his nickname. (Denver still maintains a small herd of buffalo—direct descendants of original American bison—near the mountain.)

But weather almost thwarted Cody’s burial plans. Since he died in January, the road to Lookout Mountain was impassable and his preferred burial site frozen solid. For a while, his body lay in state in the Colorado Capitol building. Governors and famous friends eulogized Cody in an elaborate funeral service. Then his body was placed in a carriage that moved solemnly through the streets of Denver, where thousands showed up to say goodbye. Afterwards, his body was kept in cold storage at a Denver mortuary while his family waited for the weather to change.

Meanwhile, Colorado and Wyoming started a heated feud over one of America’s most famous men. Wyoming claimed that Cody should be buried there, citing an early draft of his will that said he intended to be buried near Cody. Colorado cried foul, since Cody’s last will left the burial location up to his widow, who chose Lookout Mountain. Rumors even began to circulate that a delegation from Wyoming had stolen Cody’s body from the mortuary and replaced it with that of a local vagrant.

In part to stop the rumor mill, Cody was finally buried in an open casket on Lookout Mountain in June 1917. Twenty-five thousand people went to the mountaintop to bid him farewell before he was interred. To prevent theft, the bronze casket was sealed in another, tamper-proof case, then enclosed in concrete and iron.

Pennies on Buffalo Bill's grave
V.T. Polywoda, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Yet his rocky grave was anything but safe. In the 1920s, Cody’s niece, Mary Jester Allen, began to claim that Denver had conspired to tamper with Cody’s will. In response, Cody’s foster son, Johnny Baker, disinterred the body and had it reburied at the same site under tons of concrete to prevent potential theft [PDF]. (Allen also founded a museum in Wyoming to compete with a Colorado-based museum founded by Baker.)

The saga wasn’t over yet. In 1948, the Cody, Wyoming American Legion offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could disinter the body and return it to Wyoming. In response, the Colorado National Guard stationed officers to keep watch over the grave.

Since then, the tussle over the remains has calmed down. Despite a few ripples—like a jokey debate in the Wyoming legislature about stealing the body in 2006—Buffalo Bill still remains in the grave. If you believe the official story, that is. In Cody, Wyoming, rumor has it that he never made it into that cement-covered tomb after all—proponents claim he was buried on Cedar Mountain, where he originally asked to be interred.

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15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination, even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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