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The Doctor Who Designed a Cipher Wheel to Decode Shakespeare

In the years immediately after his death in 1616, Shakespeare was merely remembered as a good, though not necessarily brilliant, writer. But as literary styles and tastes changed, Shakespeare’s work began to be appreciated more and more, so that by the mid-19th century, appetite and acclaim for his writing had reached near fanatical levels. By the late Victorian era, Shakespeare was being hailed as a literary genius, the author of perhaps the greatest works of English literature that had ever been written—but the sheer quality of his work soon began to stir up discontent.

We know relatively little of Shakespeare’s life, and only the barest bones about his background and upbringing. But what little we do know paints a fairly humble picture—and it’s precisely that that some Victorian scholars and writers just couldn’t square up with the quality of Shakespeare’s writing.

In 1848, the American author Joseph C. Hart wrote an essay in his travel memoir The Romance of Yachting in which he expressly questioned, for the first time, the true authorship of Shakespeare’s work. Hart was traveling in Europe when he began to ponder an apparent error in the plot to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: Act 3, scene 3 of the play opens in “Bohemia, a desert country near the sea,” despite the fact that Bohemia—a region of central Europe roughly equivalent to the modern-day Czech Republic—is entirely landlocked. To Hart, such a basic geographical error didn’t sit well with the impossibly high standard of Shakespeare’s writing, which led him to suggest that Shakespeare—dismissed as a “mere factotum of a theatre,” “a copyist for the prompter,” and a “vulgar and unlettered man”—was not the author of the works attributed to him. Shakespeare’s contribution, he suggested, was probably limited to providing the plays’ dirty jokes.

Following the publication of Hart’s memoir, other 19th century writers soon started to break cover and began to question the authorship of Shakespeare’s work themselves. In 1857, writer Delia Bacon published The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, a work—more than a decade in the making—now credited with providing the earliest fully-formed theory that Shakespeare was not the author of his work. Bacon theorized that the works were the result of a collaboration between a number of high-society Elizabethan writers and figures, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser and, most notably of all, Sir Francis Bacon. They, she believed, had left encrypted messages and descriptions of an entirely new philosophical system hidden deep in the wording of Shakespeare’s plays, which they could not be seen to advocate publicly.

Although they didn’t agree with her theory, Bacon’s friendships with several high-profile literary figures of the day (including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson) helped her notion of a secret cabal of writers gain ground in 19th-century literary circles. By the turn of the century, dozens of books and essays had been written on the subject, societies had been established to promote the so-called “anti-Stratfordian” theory, and several high profile figures—such as Walt Whitman and, later, Sigmund Freud—had signed on to the idea.

For every advocate of the anti-Stratfordian viewpoint, however, there was a pro-Stratfordian only too happy to point out the holes in their arguments. (Even Joseph Hart’s original quibble over Bohemia being landlocked was easily explained by the fact that Shakespeare had based The Winter’s Tale on Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, an earlier work by Robert Greene that made the same mistake.) Still, the authorship question rumbled on—until finally, in the late 1880s, it attracted the attention of Dr. Orville Ward Owen.

THE DOUBTING DOCTOR

Owen was a hugely successful physician based in Detroit who had a habit of reading and memorizing passages of Shakespeare as a way of clearing his mind between patients. Eventually he became so well-versed in Shakespeare’s works that he found he had committed the entire 1623 First Folio to memory, and as a party trick could pinpoint the exact play, act, and scene from which any line given to him was taken. The only lines he struggled with were those that cropped up with almost identical wording in more than one play, and it was precisely these curious repetitions—combined with all the other anachronisms, geographical missteps, and erroneous details that had fueled the authorship debate so far—that led Owen to believe certain passages in Shakespeare’s works must have been implanted deliberately. He concluded that they were the coded passages that would reveal Bacon’s secret message, and he dedicated his life to deciphering them.

Having followed a series of clues littered throughout Shakespeare’s work (“Beginning in the middle, starting thence away …”), Owen worked out a word-based cipher that he then applied to other works outside of the Shakespeare canon—including Arcadia, a 16th-century prose piece by the English poet Sir Philip Sidney (which, he later claimed, Sir Francis Bacon must also have written). All that work left him with the following decrypted passage:

The easiest way to carry on the work is to
Take your knife and cut all our books asunder,
And set the leaves on a great firm wheel
Which rolls and rolls...

It may be a decoded message explaining the best method to decode the code in which it was originally encoded, but Owen nevertheless took his cue from this passage and began construction of an extraordinary contraption to help expedite his research: the cipher wheel.

Around two huge cylindrical spools, each 3-foot by 4-foot, Owen wound an enormous length of canvas fabric, onto which he pasted pages of Shakespeare’s Complete Works plus extracts from his contemporaries’ works. By aligning the pages in a specific order and then turning the spool, vast swathes of text could be analyzed at once. Owen would sit between the two spools, calling out passages of interest to an assistant, who would then collate the extracts for later analysis. Eventually, he managed to decipher a now well-known conspiracy theory: Bacon was not only the true William Shakespeare, but the forgotten son of Queen Elizabeth I and her secret lover Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Shunned from his rightful claim to the throne, Bacon had laid out his scandalous life story into numerous encoded works of literature, the majority of which he attributed to other writers of the day. Owen published his extraordinary theory—and his equally extraordinary methodology—in a vast five-volume treatise, Sir Francis Bacon’s Cipher Story (1893-1895). But he did not stop there.

Continuing his analysis of the jumbled text on his cipher wheel, Owen concluded that Bacon had also written two more long-lost plays—namely The Tragical Historie of Our Late Brother Robert, Earl of Essex and The Historical Tragedy of Mary, Queen of Scots—which Owen claimed to have successfully extracted. But the real prize would be finding the manuscripts and personal belongings that would prove Bacon’s birthright and authorship, which Owen believed were somewhere close to the river Wye on the border of England and Wales. His quest for the truth was about to take him across the Atlantic.

A FRUITLESS SEARCH

Owen arrived in Britain in 1909. A preliminary search in caves behind Chepstow Castle on the banks of the Wye in southwest Wales was turned up nothing, but he returned a year later to carry out an even more extensive examination. Based on further decoded lines from Bacon’s text (“boxes like eels in the mud,” “make a triangle of 123 feet due north and 33 paces,” “I filled up the shallow water …”), Owen financed an excavation of the riverbed of the Wye itself, believing there was a secret vault containing 66 lead-lined boxes somewhere beneath the mud along its course. Two dozen men were employed, several hundredweight of material was excavated, and Owen’s research caused a media frenzy.

A previously unknown Roman bridge was discovered, as was a medieval cistern. But as for proof of Bacon’s royal bloodline and his authorship of Shakespeare’s work? After great expense, Owen unearthed nothing.

In the years that followed, he continued his research with the cipher wheel, but his confidence began to falter and his health began to fail rapidly. Although he continued to provide new textual evidence for other Baconian advocates—who carried out their own explorations around Chepstow in the late 1910s and early 1920s—none found anything ironclad to support their theory. Finally, Owen was quoted as saying:

“When I discovered the word cipher, I had the largest practice of any physician in Detroit. I could have been the greatest surgeon there … but I thought that the world would be eager to hear what I had found. Instead, what did they give me? I have had my name dragged in the mud, had more calumny heaped upon my character than many people can imagine, lost my fortune, ruined my health, and today am a bedridden, almost penniless, invalid.”

He died shortly after, on March 31, 1924, at the age 70. The Baconian and anti-Stratfordian viewpoint has continued to be argued over ever since—although not quite as inventively as with Owen’s cipher wheel.

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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