Cryptograms and similar coded puzzles have been a mainstay of newspapers and puzzle books for decades now, and it’s not hard to see why. Codebreaking has been a puzzler’s playground for centuries.
Back in November, the skeleton of a carrier pigeon from World War II was found, along with a coded message the dearly departed bird had been ferrying somewhere.
One of Britain’s national intelligence agencies declared that the message couldn’t be decoded without access to the original material responsible for the code.
What puzzler could resist a challenge like that?
A Canadian puzzle fiend, Gordon Young, with the help of his great-uncle’s World War I codebook, cracked the code in 17 minutes.
Now, of course, wartime codecracking stories are common, given the importance of reliable communication and strategy during combat and operations. Most people are familiar with terms like the ENIGMA machine or one-time pads.
(Codebreaking and cryptography were considered so crucial to the war effort that Agatha Christie was investigated for her novel N or M?, which featured a character named Major Bletchley, a name that made the government nervous, considering that their major codebreaking center was Bletchley Park.)
But wartime was hardly the only opportunity for codecracking to yield great results.
Among the many storied cases of San Francisco detective Isaiah Lees — a man considered one of the real-life rivals to Sherlock Holmes in terms of detection — there’s another curious case of codebreaking.
A bank robber had been arrested, and his coded journal came into Lees’ possession. When Lees cracked the code, he got much more than he bargained for.
The bank robber was no mere thief. He was William Fredericks, a man who’d killed a Nevada sheriff and provided the weapons for a Folsom prison jailbreak. It’s only due to Lees’ diligence that the murderer was duly punished for his crimes.
But the highlights of codebreaking history are hardly relegated to the past. Plenty of young puzzlers have been given the chance to flex their mental mettle in Britain, thanks to the National Cipher Challenge.
Tasked with decrypting a series of cryptic codes, thousands of students had two months to best everything from simple letter-shifting codes (known as Caesar cyphers) to much more complicated codes involving anagramming, letter-shifting, and other obfuscation techniques.
Aimed at attracting young people to math and computer science, the National Cipher Challenge is just one more example of how puzzle skills are helping pave the way to the future.
For more info on the National Cipher Challenge, check out their website.
For more on the curious crossing of Bletchley Park and Agatha Christie, check out this terrific article on the Daily Mail.
For more on codes and codebreaking in general, I highly recommend Secret Language: Codes, Tricks, Spies, Thieves, and Symbols by Barry J. Blake.