Computer scientist cracks centuries old, secret society code

A computer scientist has cracked a mysterious code dating back to the 18th century, a bizarre 75,000 character, 105-page handwritten message made up of abstract symbols and Roman characters, the “Copiale Cipher”.

Uppsala University colleagues Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer hunted for the original manuscript, first found after the Cold War in the East Berlin Academy. They were joined by University of Southern California computer scientist Kevin Knight, of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

What’s inside the bound gold and green paper, says the University of Southern California, is a document penned by an 18th-century secret society that goes into detail about the ritual and political leanings of the time.

To begin with, none of the team was even sure of the encrypted document’s language. Still, the script was peppered with Roman and Greek characters throughout so they thought they’d start there, isolating them from the odd, abstract symbols and focused on them as the true code.

Despite their best efforts, which Knight said took “quite a long time”, they got nowhere. After testing 80 different languages, it turned out the Copiale Cipher’s Roman and Greek characters were red herrings, placed to throw the code breaker off course. 

The team realised that the abstract characters were what they needed to crack. After a lot of frustrating work, they figured out that abstract symbols with similar shapes tended to represent the same letter or groups of letters. 

It turned out that the Copiale Cipher was coded by a group calling itself the “Oculist Order”, a German secret society. The full, translated text is available here. Here is an excerpt: 

“First of all one needs to rotate the head first to the left side, then to the right side, as one does when one looks after something. Use the handkerchief and look to the next inquirer.  Secondly, if one does not touch one hand but if one makes an arbitrary movement with the other one, and one looks to the other one.  I also make an arbitrary movement, however with the other hand.  Thirdly, one takes tobacco with the thumb and the middle finger of the left hand.  Touch with the left hand your left eye.”

More information on the cipher, including the plain character to cipher translation, can be found online here

Now, Knight is focusing on other unbroken codes – like the infamous Zodiac Killer, a mystery killer who left clues and ciphers but was never caught.

Using his computer-assisted code breaking software, he will also try to crack the last of “Kryptos”, which is an encrypted message carved into a sculpture at the CIA headquarters. He’ll also apply the software to the Voynich Manuscript from medieval times, which cryptographers have so far been baffled by.

The Standard Galactic Alphabet is here.