George Washington: Commander in Chief (and Codes)

George Washington was the first American president, the Father of Our Country, a general, a farmer, and an inventor. He invigorated and empowered the role of the president far beyond what the Framers of the Constitution originally envisioned, and is widely regarded as the standard against which all presidents are measured.

But did you know he also created America’s first spy ring?

The story is fascinating, and you get the full scoop in Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager’s book George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution.

As the Revolutionary War raged on and America struggled to rout the British forces, Washington realized that British spycraft was heavily responsible for American losses. Determined to even the playing field, Washington marshalled trusted associates to form America’s first spy ring, known as the Culper Ring.

Originally, Washington and his agents employed code names and a few numerical substitutions for words in their messages. The two key agents, Benjamin Tallmadge and Abraham Woodhull, were designated Culper Junior and Culper Senior, respectively, while a still-unidentified female agent is known only as Agent 355. (355 was Tallmadge’s code for “lady.”)

10 stood for New York and 20 for Setauket, so that the recipient would know the source of the information contained in the reports. Two additional numbers, 30 and 40, were used to designate Jonas Hawkins and Austin Roe as post riders delivering the messages to their next destination.

But after two close calls with key agents and information endangered by the British, they followed the French model and developed a more elaborate code system.

Making a list from 1 to 763, he [Benjamin Tallmadge] … assigned each pertinent word, location, or name a numerical code. He became 721, Woodhull as Culper Senior 722, Townsend as Culper Junior 723, Roe 724, and Brewster 725. General Washington was 711 and his British counterpart, General Clinton, was 712. Numbers were often represented by letters, so that the year “1779,” for example, might read as “ennq.”

Could you decipher this message, a rudimentary version of the code eventually used by the Culper Ring?

[In this example of Tallmadge’s ever-evolving code,
“Setauket” went from “20” in the earlier code to “729.”]

They delivered their coded messages through some tried-and-true spying methods, including employing invisible ink and disguising vital communiques as bland family letters. And the Culper Ring had some stunning victories to its credit, including rooting out Benedict Arnold’s traitorous plot to hand over West Point to the British.

[An example of the more elaborate, French-inspired code system
employed later in the war by Washington and the Culper Ring.]

The Culper Ring even saved American aspiring cryptographers one heck of a headache. There was a standing order for agents to “learn as many of the British navy’s code signals as possible, so that the French fleet could decipher what the enemy ships were communicating to one another during naval engagements.”

As you might imagine, even skilled codebreakers would’ve had a nearly impossible time memorizing the codes AND deciphering them in the midst of battle. Thankfully, the Culper Ring obtained a copy of the entire British Naval Codebook, not only saving the eyes and sanity of numerous Americans, but delivering Yorktown to American Revolutionary forces.

In fact, British intelligence agent Major George Beckwith commented, “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us!”

And he used some puzzly cryptography skills to do it.

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An iron mask and an uncrackable code…

I’ll probably never get tired of writing blog posts about cryptography. It’s a puzzly skill with plenty of real-world applications. Heck, England hosts a yearly codebreaking challenge in order to identify people with topnotch cryptographic abilities in the hopes of recruiting them for government work!

We’ve explored how modern codebreaking has cracked secret messages from the Civil War as well as how cryptographic skill caught a murderer and helped decipher the lost language Linear B. We’ve even talked about the time that enterprising codebreakers saved Christmas!

And, as it turns out, a nineteenth-century codebreaker may have solved the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask.

For centuries, French communiques were unreadable because the French employed Le Grand Chiffre, or the Great Cipher, a substitution code devised by Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol that employed numbers standing in for letters. (There were several variations of the Great Cipher, ranging between 580 and 720 code numbers.)

But the Great Cipher was cracked by Etienne Bazeries, a French military cryptoanalyst who deduced that each number stood not for a single letter, but for pairings of letters. More specifically, syllables. Over the course of three years (from 1891 to 1893), by working his way through the patterns and identifying common letter patterns based on frequency of use, he deciphered first a few words, and eventually, the entire cipher. (Supposedly the key was the numeric combination “124-22-125-46-345,” which stood for “the enemies.”)

One of the encoded messages from King Louis XIV concerned a disgraced general named Vivien de Bulonde, who endangered an entire French campaign against the Austrians by fleeing an Italian town instead of attacking it.

His Majesty knows better than any other person the consequences of this act, and he is also aware of how deeply our failure to take the place will prejudice our cause, a failure which must be repaired during the winter. His Majesty desires that you immediately arrest General Bulonde and cause him to be conducted to the fortress of Pignerole, where he will be locked in a cell under guard at night, and permitted to walk the battlement during the day with a 330 309.

Bazeries believes that “330” and “309” stood for the syllables “mas” and “que,” meaning that General Bulonde was masked for his daily walks, but since those Great Cipher codes were apparently only used once, it’s impossible to confirm Bazeries’ suspicions.

It took Bazeries three years to crack an “uncrackable” code, and quite possibly solve a centuries-old mystery. Another testament to where puzzly skills can take you.

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A globetrotting musical mystery…

Every moment in history is a puzzle to be unraveled. What threads had to be drawn together, what forces had to converge, what improbable series of events had to unfold in precise order to create the exact circumstances to allow that moment to happen?

Any student of history is a puzzler at heart, every personality and preceding event a clue, a potential piece, one domino in the chain of events.

And one student of history found the solution for an unexpected puzzle in a museum in New Jersey.

The Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey is home to hundreds of mechanical musical instruments and players, displaying numerous pieces of the Murtogh D. Guinness collection.

In 2011, when W. Anthony Sheppard stumbled upon a music box — an 1877 Swiss cylinder music box known as a harmoniphone — at the Morris Museum, he had a mystery on his hands.

It was a Swiss music box, much like the one featured above, but the titles of the melodies it played were written in Chinese characters. These were Chinese pieces of music, intended for a Chinese audience. And yet, several of the tunes were strikingly similar to themes from two of Puccini‘s operas: Turandot (set in China) and Madama Butterfly (set in Japan).

Now, Sheppard knew from his musical studies that Puccini used Chinese tunes in the creation of Turandot, but the origins of several tunes in Madama Butterfly have proven more elusive. (The general belief at the time was that the Madama Butterfly tunes in question were inspired by Japanese music, but no one had definitively tied any particular melodies to the opera.)

Yet in an American museum, a Swiss machine with Chinese melodies, traced to an Italian composer, shifted the spotlight from Japan… and back toward China.

[The card that pointed Sheppard in a new direction.]

And the globetrotting didn’t end there. The box had a stamp for a Shanghai department store, as well as a stamp from a repair shop in Rome from the early twentieth century. Not only had the box been manufactured in Europe for sale in China, but it later returned to Europe for service.

Later, Sheppard would further track the providence of the piece, believing it to be the actual music box Puccini listened to before creating his famous operas.

A single clue with widespread ramifications for the history of opera. A music box that not only traveled the world, not only offers proof of how music circulated more than a century ago, but also solved a mystery and rewrote its own corner of history.

It just goes to show you that puzzles are everywhere, sometimes hiding in plain sight, ready to challenge a sharp mind and change the way we see the world.

[I learned of this story in the book Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t or Won’t Show You by Harriet Baskas. The Morris Museum music box is just one of many interesting stories featured within.]

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Remake history at home! (With puzzles!)

Crowdsourcing has become an increasingly popular method for scientists and deep thinkers to solve problems that would otherwise be far too staggering a challenge to tackle on their own.

I’ve written in the past about crowdfunding efforts, but this is something different: actually handing over the problem to the public. It’s citizen science!

The National Museums Scotland are trying to reassemble the shattered design on a Scottish relic dated back to the year 800 or so, hoping that reaching out to nonprofessionals will help them to restore the intricate designs that once adorned a sandstone slab centuries past.

Every fragment has been scanned into a 3-D model and catalogued, making each a small piece of a truly monumental puzzle to be solved. (And without the picture on the box to guide you!)

From an NBC News article:

The pieces will be grouped into categories — for example, corner pieces, or parts of the design’s knotwork. That will help users organize the work into manageable subtasks, as if they were working collectively on a huge jigsaw puzzle. Suggested solutions to parts of the puzzle would be judged by fellow users, and then passed on to the professionals.

This mix of science and puzzle-gaming has engendered marvelous successes before. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (or SETI) utilizes dozens of citizen computers for processing power in order to more efficiently scan the skies for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. The FoldIt program led to the crowdsourced discovery of the structure of a monkey HIV virus in ten days, after a decade of attempts by scientists.

(There are similar puzzle-game attempts being made to map the human brain, explore the potential of DNA, and catalogue animal species. Check out this IO9 link for further details.)

This is yet another amazing example of puzzle solving making a true contribution to our understanding of the world. And it’s always nice to remind ourselves that puzzles can be all fun and games, but they can also be something much much more.

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