Copiale Cipher: How a Secret Society's Code Was Finally Cracked

By LiveScience, Charles Choi | The Christian Science Monitor, October 26, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Copiale Cipher: How a Secret Society's Code Was Finally Cracked


LiveScience, Charles Choi, The Christian Science Monitor


Copiale Cipher: Computer scientists have cracked the code of the Copiale Cipher, an 18th-century manuscript of a German secret society known as the 'Oculist Order.'

A mysterious encrypted manuscript of a secret society, meticulously written in abstract symbols and Roman letters, has finally been deciphered more than three centuries after it was first handwritten, scientists now reveal.

The enciphered message, or cryptogram, revealed the rituals and political aims of an enigmatic 18th-century German fellowship, the "Oculist Order," revealing the society had a fascination with eye surgery, though it seems members of the society were not eye doctors.

"This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies," said researcher Kevin Knight, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California. "Historians believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, and a big part of the reason, is because so many documents are enciphered."

Cracking a cryptogram

The mysterious cryptogram, bound in gold-and-green brocade paper, dates back to a time between 1760 and 1780. Once hidden in the depths of the East Berlin Academy and uncovered after the Cold War, its 75,000 characters are written in 90 different cipher letters, including the 26 Roman letters as well as many abstract symbols. [Read: History's Most Overlooked Mysteries]

On its 105 yellowing pages, the only plain text is "Philipp 1866" on the flyleaf and "Copiales 3" at the end of the last page. "Philipp" is thought to have been an owner of the manuscript, while "Copiales" was used to give the secret writing its name: the Copiale Cipher.

To break the cipher, an international team of researchers tracked down the manuscript, now in a private collection, and transcribed a machine-readable version of the text.

The investigators began not even knowing the language of the encrypted document. At first they focused on the Roman and Greek characters sprinkled throughout the Copiale Cipher, isolating them from the abstract symbols and attacked it as the real text.

"It took quite a long time and resulted in complete failure," Knight said.

Secret symbols

After trying 80 languages, the cryptography team realized the Roman characters were "nulls" intended to mislead readers, somewhat like how pig Latin adds the suffix "ay" to words in an attempt to confuse listeners. It was the abstract symbols that held the message.

"It was exciting to decode," Knight recalled.

One idea that eventually bore fruit was that abstract symbols with similar shapes in the Copiale Cipher represented the same letter or groups of letters -- for instance, the symbols with the circumflex "^" over them were actually the letter "E.

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