The Countess Who Revolutionized European Spycraft

[Image courtesy of Derek Bruff.org.]

The history of codebreaking is a fascinating subject not only for the mythic figures and their brain-melting accomplishments, but also for the unsung heroes who are only recently being rediscovered.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a woman who shaped a new foundation for American codebreaking, but has long since been overshadowed by the reputation of her husband William Friedman (as well as FBI sexism and self-promotion which helped to bury and/or co-opt her accomplishments as their own).

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Of course, not her page. The page on her family line.]

And as part of my research into Elizebeth’s story, I encountered a curious anecdote from the 1600s about another codebreaker and influential spymaster who history had forgotten.

From The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone:

Monks, librarians, linguists, pianists and flutists, diplomats, scribes, postal clerks, astrologers, alchemists, players of games, lotharios, revolutionaries in coffee shops, kings and queens: these are the ones who built the field across the centuries and pushed the boundaries forward, stubborn individuals with a lot of time to sit and think and not give up. Most were men who did not believe women intellectually or morally capable of breaking codes; some were women who took advantage of this prejudice to steal secrets in the shadows.

One of the more cunning and effective codebreakers of the seventeenth century was a Belgian countess named Alexandrine, who upon the death of her husband in 1628 took over the management of an influential post office, The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis, which routed mail all throughout Europe.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Naturally, I was intrigued. But there’s surprisingly little out there about Alexandrine, whose full title was Alexandrine of Rye-Varax, Countess of Taxis, widow of Leonard II, Count of Taxis, occasionally shortened to Alexandrine von Taxis. She gets merely a paragraph on Wikipedia, and most Google searches only feature her as part of noble family trees.

Which is amazing, because she created the first verifiable Black Chamber in Europe — better known ones in England, France, and Germany weren’t established until the late seventeenth century. (A Black Chamber is a secret spy room or intelligence office, and Alexandrine’s was not only one of the first, but it was one of the most expansive.)

Despite her status as a widow, she was sworn into office as Postmistress in 1628 (serving as such until 1646, when her son would come of age), using those years to improve the wealth and status of her family while expanding the reach of the Taxis postal business, based in the Spanish Netherlands.

[The Taxis postal service, circa 1505-1516.
Blurry image courtesy of ApfelbaumInc.com.]

Alexandrine took over the Taxis postal service — the primary postal service across the continent, save for private couriers. She had a monopoly over the post in Europe, and was the de facto postmistress for the entire Holy Roman Empire.

And she used that position to her advantage, forming the Chamber of Taxis, an elite intelligence team composed of agents, forgers, scribes, codebreakers, and artisans. In a couple of hours, they could melt the wax seals off letters, copy their contents (in short-hand, often), decipher any coded messages, forge a new seal (and any other marks, including signatures, that would authenticate a seal), reseal the letter, and send it on its way, the invasion of privacy undetected.

She spoke four languages — French, Dutch, Italian, and German — and was very politcally savvy, cultivating relationships with fellow nobles even as she prowled through their private messages.

It’s not clear for whom she was spying. Some sources claim she sold her information to the highest bidder, while others claim she worked for both Emperor Ferdinand II and his son and successor Ferdinand III.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

What is clear, however, is that many discounted her and the Chamber of Taxis as a possible threat because of who she was. Sir Balthazar Gerbier, an agent of Charles I, suspected her early on, but discounted his own instincts because of “her honesty, dignity, and sex.”

Yes, the fact that she was a woman disqualified her in the minds of many from being capable of the sort of deceit and spycraft going on in the Chamber. (It also rankled some, like several German princes, that she was in a position of power at all, given her sex.)

And discounting her was a mistake, given that she commanded a crucial hub in the postal network.

[Yes, there’s even a board game based on the family business.
No spycraft though, unfortunately. Image courtesy of 999 Games.]

From Diplomacy and Early Modern Culture, edited by R. Adams and R. Cox:

Since the 1490s Brussels had been the gateway to Europe’s postal network, connecting international postal routes from Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia, and England. One single family, the Counts of Taxis (from 1649/50 Thurn and Taxis), commanded the mounted couriers over these many-branched routes.

Yes, the family name and title changed, and that was also Alexandrine’s doing.

When those aforementioned German princes questioned having a woman running the Taxis postal service, she ordered a full ancestral workup. That examination revealed her family’s ties to another important lineage, and from that point on, The Thurn and Taxis postal service (as well as her spy organization, The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis) would bear that additional name, increasing the prestige and reputation of both family and business alike.

For eighteen years, Countess Alexandrine commanded both a business and a spy network that spanned the European continent, influencing the information flowing between various noble families, and no doubt helping to shape the future of Europe.

I sincerely hope more is revealed about her life and the work of The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis in the future. I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface of the role she (and the group) played in European history.


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A Secret Code Lurking in the Library Stacks!

[Image courtesy of Wonderopolis.]

The best thing about secret codes is that they can hide in plain sight. In the past, we’ve referenced all sorts of ciphers and codes that were employed to pass secret messages across open channels.

But, as it turns out, clandestine communication isn’t the only end to which secret codes can be applied.

Recently, I stumbled upon a series of Tweets that detailed a mystery at a library involving a secret code.

[Image courtesy of Princeton.edu.]

Take it away, Georgia:

So there was a MYSTERY at the library today.

A wee old women came in and said “I’ve a question. Why does page 7 in all the books I take out have the 7 underlined in pen? It seems odd.”

“What?” I say, thinking she might be a bit off her rocker. She showed me, and they did.

I asked if she was doing it, she said she wasn’t and showed me the new book she was getting out that she hadn’t even had yet. It also had the 7 underlined! “I don’t know, maybe someone really likes page 7?” I said, assuming of course that there is a serial killer in the library.

I checked some other books. Most didn’t have it, but a lot in this genre did – they’re “wee old women” books (romances set in wartime Britain etc). Lots of underlined 7s. The woman who pointed it out shrugged and went on her way, “just thought you should know”.

[Image courtesy of MovieSteve.com.]

What could it mean? Was there a secret message spelled out somehow across the seventh page of all these books? Perhaps the seventh word? What could the message be? A warning? A threat? A great universal truth? A clue to a hidden treasure? The start of a symbol-laden journey across European with sinister forces hot on your heels?

Well, no. Calm down.

As it turns out, there wasn’t a secret message or a hunt across Europe or a threat from a diabolical library-obsessed serial killer on the loose. There was simply an elderly client with her own unique code.

Apparently, she was underlining page 7 in every book she read, in order to keep track of which books she’d already read, in case she comes across it on the shelf again.

And she’s far from the only one! Upon further research, the librarian uncovered a number of different tracking systems, many of them pre-dating the use of computers to keep library records!

Whether there’s a little star on the last page, or an F on the title page, or a page 7 underlined, each code reveals a different, dedicated reader with their own system.

When she posted this story on Twitter, other library employees and former employees piped up to share their own encounters with secret library codes that patrons employed!

I think it’s fascinating that systems like this seem to have been around as long as libraries, probably discovered (and re-discovered) periodically as different patrons and librarians alike notice them.

Better living through secret codes. Who knew?


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A Video Game Puzzle Hunt Reaps Real-World Rewards!

We’ve written about some pretty amazing and elaborate puzzle hunts here in the past. There was the Gravity Falls cipher hunt that led to an actual statue of the show’s villain Bill Cipher in the woods of Reedsport, Oregon. (And a mayoral position for the first person to find him and shake his hand!) There was the puzzle-turned-global-scavenger hunt from Trials Evolution that won’t be completed until 2113 at the base of the Eiffel Tower.

And now, a massive crowdsourcing effort has cracked another masterpiece, a puzzle hidden in an expansion pack for the video game Destiny 2. Destiny 2 is an online first-person-shooter loaded with sci-fi trappings and in-depth storytelling where players explore a shared environment while engaging in their own personal plot and adventures.

The most recent expansion to the game, Warmind, was released last week, and players noticed an elaborate symbol on a wall in the bunker of Rasputin, a sentient robot. The symbol appeared to be a lock surrounded by keys and curious symbols.

This Kotaku post went live on Friday, three days after the Warmind release, revealing the incredible online effort already in motion to unravel the secrets of the Rasputin puzzle. The subreddit r/raidsecrets was ground zero for the puzzle-solving efforts, and players compiled their theories and discoveries there.

Players quickly determined that each of the keys had a symbol that linked back to other imagery from the game, and by following those breadcrumbs, they had a chance to crack the cipher.

The first symbol was found in several places, each time with a set of digits and a bar in a particular position. Solvers theorized that these symbols represented the word “reverse.”

The second symbol appeared beside a Braille grid, leading hunters to crates with Braille lettering on them: OEAARRTFWTH. This anagrams to The Art of War, Sun Tzu’s famous tome. In this case, The Art of War was used as the source material for an Ottendorf Cipher. (That particular cipher was made famous by Nicolas Cage’s National Treasure movies.)

This type of cipher uses numbers in groups of three, and these numbers correspond to positions of letters in a book. Most often the numbers refer to Line, Word, and Letter. Decoding the number-combinations in the image above led to the answer “Destroy all second A and B. Then destroy all third C and R.”

These two clues were assumed to be instructions for what to do with the encoded ciphertext others had discovered in the game:

This encrypted message was the heart of the puzzle. But there was more to uncover first.

As it turns out, the last three keys in the image represented different words to apply to the ciphertext in order to properly decode it.

The fourth symbol was found near a Morse Code sequence that spelled out “NTEHNMLNEEGIT,” an anagram for “Enlightenment.”

The fifth symbol pointed toward a monitor with some peculiar code on it. It turns out the code was actually Jianpu, an ancient form of Chinese notation for writing music. When translated into actual music, a player identified the piece as an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

One intrepid codebreaker then tried to decrypt the ciphertext given the clues everyone had assembled thus far.

He reversed the ciphertext, according to the instruction of the first key. He then removed every other A and every other B from the text, then every third C and every third R, according to the instructions of the second key.

Then, employing a Vigenere cipher, he used the two key words he had — “enlightenment” and “swan lake” — to begin decrypting the text. He managed to decrypt the entire text, but more incredibly, he also reverse engineered the missing third key word — “mechanized” — while doing so.

And what was the final message, after all this?

thank you for taking the time to piece together this message, friend. the time of our final conflict is drawing closer and you and ana have an important role to play in the events to come. so watch over her, guardian. i would have no life without ana or the exoprogram. i regret that we have become strangers, but we each have a path that we must walk. and, ironically, there never seems to be enough time. tell her, rasputin’s first attempt was in the right location, but the wrong moment. look here: 43.549573, -73.544868 – e

As you might suspect, those numbers at the end are GPS coordinates, which correspond to Sleeping Beauty Mountain in upstate New York. (The company that developed Warmind, Vicarious Visions, is based in upstate New York.)

A small treasure trove of prizes awaited the brave soul who trekked out to Sleeping Beauty Mountain on Saturday morning. The centerpiece was a giant spear, a replica of a weapon from the game known as the Valkyrie.

From the Kotaku article following up on the puzzle’s resolution:

There was also a box of gold coins (along with instructions asking the finder to only take one), a set of notes, and a journal for recording visitors. The note, from Warmind design lead Rob Gallerani, encouraged the finder(s) to share photos of this discovery and told them that there are only three spears like that in existence — one at Vicarious Visions, one at Bungie, and this.

The spear, shown above (alongside the visiting team from Vicarious Visions) now resides at a comic shop called The Freakopolis Geekery.

As for the gold coins and the geocache Vicarious Visions had set up for others who make the trip, unfortunately, park rangers removed it because the designers didn’t get a permit. The coins have been returned to Vicarious Visions, who are currently reaching out to all the folks at r/raidsecrets who contributed to the solution of the puzzle, hoping to get them the coins they so richly deserve.

And, as if all that wasn’t amazing enough, it turns out… this might not be the end of the adventure.

Because a sharp-eyed observer noticed some text embossed on the upper portion of the replica Valkyrie spear:

At the moment, no one knows what the letters mean. But if I had to wager, I’d say the master puzzle solvers at r/raidsecrets should keep digging. Who knows what they’ll find next?


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Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker and Scourge of Nazi Spymasters

[William and Elizebeth Smith Friedman, hard at work.
Image courtesy of National Geographic.]

Last year, I rather ambitiously attempted to summarize the early history of American codebreaking and the NSA in a series of blog posts spanning World War II through the modern day. One of the names I cited in that series, William Friedman, is synonymous with American cryptography, thanks to his contributions to the cracking of the German ENIGMA code and his efforts to establish the National Security Agency.

Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the narrative I constructed. Because none of my sources made any reference to another crucial Friedman: Elizebeth Smith Friedman, William’s wife and partner in code-cracking.

Yes, she was name-dropped in my post about the book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, but she had to share those pages with a host of underappreciated women who were codebreaking geniuses.

[Image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.]

As The Woman Who Smashed Codes explains, she wasn’t just a talented codebreaker. She literally wrote the book on it. Eight of them, in fact. The Riverbank Publications — although often credited to her husband — covered new codebreaking techniques in rich detail, and they are still referred to today as part of the foundation of modern cryptography.

She also started the first and only American codebreaking unit ever run by a woman, serving as Cryptanalyst-in-Charge while jointly working for both the Treasury and the Coast Guard during and after World War II.

A history of American codebreaking without Elizebeth Smith Friedman is woefully incomplete, and in today’s post, I hope to rectify that oversight.

[Image courtesy of the Marshall Foundation.]

Elizebeth’s work with codes started in a most peculiar way. While seeking a job as a librarian after college, she was recruited by eccentric millionaire George Fabyan to live and work at Riverbank, his palatial estate that doubled as a self-funded research center for all sorts of scientific endeavors.

Elizebeth’s deep knowledge of Shakespeare was put to work attempting to prove Fabyan’s theory that there were secret messages encoded in the writings of Shakespeare. Although her work failed to uncover any hidden pattern in Shakespeare’s words or font choices, it did lead to two unexpected developments: a career in codebreaking and a budding romance with fellow Riverbank recruit William Friedman, whose own interest in codebreaking was sparked by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Thanks to the proliferation of radio, there was a seismic shift in how information was being passed between military units, governments, and other organizations, so the ability to listen in on one’s enemies (and allies) was not only a new strategic opportunity, but it was a relatively new science.

In short, America needed codebreakers who could crack the secret messages being transmitted (and intercepted). The military didn’t have them. The government didn’t have them.

But Riverbank did. And for the first eight months of World War I, the small group of William, Elizebeth, and those they trained handled ALL of the codebreaking for every part of the US government, from the State Department to the Army to the DOJ. William and Elizebeth began running a codebreaking school out of Riverbank, even embedding a secret message in a photo of the class taken on the last day of the course.

[Images courtesy of Elonka.com.]

In the aftermath of the First World War, codebreaking had become so important that countries were turning to machines to help develop uncrackable codes. And yet, at this point, American cryptography as a whole consisted of about 50 people. William went to work for the government, establishing the American version of Bletchley Park — Arlington Hall — and setting the stage for the creation of the NSA.

Elizebeth, on the other hand, cracked codes from home. And she did so for both the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard, who would send her sealed packages of intercepted encrypted intel and communications. In her first three months hunting down rum-runners during Prohibition, she solved two years’ worth of backlogged messages.

During World War II, Elizebeth’s Coast Guard Cryptography Unit turned their attention from smuggling (which waned during wartime) to cracking German codes. Under her tutelage, they would crack three different variations on the Enigma codes, each more complex than the last. (The British also cracked ENIGMA, independently of American efforts.)

Sadly, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the US military didn’t want civilians in charge of sensitive operations, so Elizebeth was demoted. Yes, she was no longer in charge of the group she started, trained, and cultivated, instead answering to a new boss of dubious cryptographic talents.

(Of course, the sexist dimwits making decisions like this had to grin and bear it when numerous other organizations and agencies continued to asked for Elizebeth’s assistance by name.)

And stealing Elizebeth’s credit was practically a cottage industry over at the FBI. We have them to thank for erasing Elizebeth’s role in particular — and the Coast Guard’s role in general — in hunting down, exposing, and compromising Nazi spy networks in South America, even though the FBI’s hamfisted blundering actually served to expose codebreaking operations in the past, forcing Elizebeth to crack new codes in order to regain the advantage the FBI had squandered.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that both during AND after World War II, Elizebeth continued to hound the Nazi forces in South America who sought to destabilize the region?

As one historian put it, referring to the thousands of pages of decryptions Elizebeth produced:

These pieces of paper saved lives. They almost certainly stopped coups. They put fascist spies in prison. They drove wedges between Germany and other nations that were trying to sustain and prolong Nazi terror. By any measure, Elizebeth was a great heroine of the Second World War.

The British knew it. The navy knew it. The FBI knew it. But the American public never did, because Elizebeth wasn’t allowed to speak.

[Image courtesy of Find a Grave.]

Even in their retirement, the Friedmans continued to contribute to the world of cryptography. They returned to the subject of Shakespeare with The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined, thoroughly debunking the whole idea of hidden codes in the Bard’s works.

When William died, Elizebeth even hid a secret message on his tombstone, for those who knew how to look. (It was Bacon’s cipher, something they both studied extensively during their time at Riverbank.) What a touching tribute to how she met her partner and husband.

And although the accolades and appreciation for Elizebeth’s incredible contributions have been slow in coming, they are trickling in. In the 1990s, the NSA renamed its auditorium from the William F. Friedman Memorial Auditorium to the William F. Friedman and Elizebeth S. Friedman Memorial Auditorium. A Justice Department building also has an auditorium bearing her name.

More information about the massive expansion of codebreaking worldwide is coming to light with every passing year. Hopefully that will mean greater attention for minds like Elizebeth, who used her puzzly mind to protect the world. That’s someone worth celebrating.

[Much of the information in this post comes from a wonderful book on Elizebeth, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, and it’s well-worth your time to check out her story in full.]


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The Puzzly Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe

[Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.]

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most influential writers in all of American literature. Not only did he come to epitomize all things ghastly and unnerving in Gothic horror with chillers like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” but he also trailblazed the detective fiction genre with his character C. Auguste Dupin.

He also made an impact on the world of puzzles.

[Image courtesy of the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation.]

Those familiar with Poe’s works of fiction probably think I’m referring to his story “The Gold-Bug,” one of, if not the first, stories to not only mention cryptography, but to include a substitution cipher (a cipher where each letter in the alphabet is represented by a different letter, number, or symbol).

In “The Gold-Bug,” an unnamed narrator meets the unusual William Legrand, a man obsessed with restoring his family’s lost fortune. Legrand shows off a large scarab-like insect, the titular gold bug. A month later, the narrator and Legrand are reunited when the obsessed Legrand (along with his servant Jupiter) goes off on a expedition to discover the location of the buried treasure of the legendary Captain Kidd.

As it turns out, a piece of paper Jupiter used to collect the gold bug had traces of invisible ink on it, revealing a cipher containing instructions for how to find Kidd’s gold.

[Image courtesy of Bookriot.]

But this was far from Poe’s only dalliance with codebreaking. In fact, he helped popularize the art and science of cryptography with a series of articles in a Philadelphia publication called Alexander’s Weekly Messenger.

In December of 1839, he laid out a challenge to his readers, boasting that he could crack any substitution cipher that readers submitted:

It would be by no means a labor lost to show how great a degree of rigid method enters into enigma-guessing. This may sound oddly; but it is not more strange than the well know fact that rules really exist, by means of which it is easy to decipher any species of hieroglyphical writing — that is to say writing where, in place of alphabetical letters, any kind of marks are made use of at random. For example, in place of A put % or any other arbitrary character –in place of B, a *, etc., etc.

Let an entire alphabet be made in this manner, and then let this alphabet be used in any piece of writing. This writing can be read by means of a proper method. Let this be put to the test. Let any one address us a letter in this way, and we pledge ourselves to read it forthwith–however unusual or arbitrary may be the characters employed.

For the next six months, Poe tackled every cipher sent to Alexander’s. According to Poe, he received around a hundred ciphers, though historians have stated that only 36 distinct ciphers appeared in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, 15 of which had solutions or partial solutions printed.

Nonetheless, it’s believed that Poe solved each of those 36 ciphers.

[Image courtesy of Awesome Stories.]

He followed up this impressive feat with an essay about cryptography in July of 1841 for Graham’s Magazine, “A Few Words on Secret Writing,” in which he discussed ancient methods of encryption and decryption, name-dropping codebreaking icons like Trithemius, Vigenere, and others.

He also published two cryptograms for the readers to solve, both submitted by a man named W.B. Tyler, “a gentleman whose abilities we highly respect.” Poe claimed he didn’t have time to solve either cryptogram, leaving them to the readers to crack. (Naturally, some scholars theorize that W.B. Tyler was none other than Poe himself.)

It would be over a century before the first verifiable solution to a W.B. Tyler cryptogram appeared. Professor Terence Whalen published his solution to the first Tyler cryptogram in 1992, and even offered a $2500 prize to whomever could solve the remaining Tyler cryptogram.

[Image courtesy of Cryptiana.web.]

That prize was claimed 8 years later by a Canadian software expert named Gil Broza, who cracked what turned out to be a polyalphabetic cipher, one in which several substitution alphabets are used.

Naturally, Poe’s interest in secret messages and codebreaking has led some to suspect that secret messages are lurking in his poetry and works of fiction. (Similar conspiracy theories abound regarding the works of Shakespeare.)

To be fair, there is something to this theory.

In a manner similar to Lewis Carroll hiding Alice Liddell’s name in an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass, Poe dedicated a poem to friend and poet Sarah Anna Lewis by hiding her name, one letter per line, in the poem itself.

[Image courtesy of The Baltimore Post Examiner.]

Of course, Poe’s method was more intricate than Carroll’s. The S in Sarah was the first letter on the first line, the A was the second letter on the second line, the R was the third letter on the third line, and so on. (Hiding coded messages in plain sight in this manner is known as steganography.)

And to this day, the hunt is on for secret messages in Poe’s works, particularly his more esoteric and oddly worded pieces. For instance, his prose poem “Eureka” — a musing on the nature of the universe itself, which actually proposed a Big Bang-like theory for the birth of the universe well before scientists offered the same theory — is believed to contain some sort of secret message or code.

Poe stated on more than one occasion that “human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.” So if there is a code lurking in his works, someone will surely find it.

And in the meantime, we can still enjoy the chills, the grand ideas, and the mysteries he left behind. That’s quite a puzzly legacy.


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The Voynich Manuscript: Finally Cracked?

[Image courtesy of BBC.com.]

A year and a half ago, I introduced my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers to the Voynich Manuscript, a cryptologic curiosity unlike anything else we’ve seen before. Discovered over a hundred years ago but believed to date back to the fifteenth century, the Voynich Manuscript is a hand-written book that has baffled linguists and puzzlers for decades.

The writing, which reads from right to left, has yet to be identified. It’s unclear if this is some sort of sophisticated code, an unknown or lost language which was then encoded, an invented language, an example of glossolalia (a written equivalent of speaking in tongues), or simply an elaborate hoax.

The only known copy of the text resides in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, although Yale has printed replica texts.

From the Yale University website:

Many call the fifteenth-century codex, commonly known as the “Voynich Manuscript,” the world’s most mysterious book. Written in an unknown script by an unknown author, the manuscript has no clearer purpose now than when it was rediscovered in 1912 by rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich. The manuscript appears and disappears throughout history, from the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to a secret sale of books in 1903 by the Society of Jesus in Rome. The book’s language has eluded decipherment, and its elaborate illustrations remain as baffling as they are beautiful.

[One of several fold-out pages in the manuscript.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

But computer scientists at the University of Alberta believe they’ve finally unraveled some of the mysteries behind the Voynich Manuscript.

They designed an artificial intelligence program with the intent of figuring out the language in the manuscript. The AI analyzed versions of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 400 different languages in order to establish different linguistic patterns to compare against the text of the Voynich Manuscript.

And according to the AI, the text was most likely written in Hebrew.

Now that they had a language to work with, they needed to begin deciphering precisely how that language was encrypted.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

There have been many theories regarding what form of encryption was employed in the Voynich Manuscript. Some investigators theorized that vowels had been removed from the words in the text in order to obscure their meaning further, while others have suggested writing that has been mirrored or otherwise written backwards. Anagrams and other forms of word manipulation are a common theory, and the University of Alberta team went with a variation on the anagram idea.

They theorized that the encoded words were alphagrams, anagrams where the letters in a word are placed in alphabetical order. (For instance, if VOYNICH was encoded this way, it would read CHINOVY.)

Turning loose the AI once again under these parameters, they found that 80% of the words in the Voynich text could be anagrammed into Hebrew words. They managed to cobble together a possible opening sentence for the text:

“She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”

Is it clunky? Sure. But it’s also a partial translation that has held up to some scrutiny, which is better than most amateur AND professional attempts to crack the Voynich Manuscript have done.

The team is currently hoping to team up with experts in ancient Hebrew and continue the process, but until then, they’re excited to apply their AI to other ancient manuscripts to see what it uncovers.

Although we are a long way from calling the Voynich mystery solved, this is a very intriguing step forward for cryptographers and codebreaking enthusiasts everywhere.


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