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
"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
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,"
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
"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. …