Does the History of Cryptography Begin in Ancient Egypt?

Puzzles in various forms have been with us for thousands of years.

We can look back at examples like riddles from ancient Greece and Sumeria, the Smyrna word square from 79 AD, or inscriptions from New Kingdom-era Egypt between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, which can be read both across the rows and down the columns. (These are informally referred to as “Egyptian crossword puzzles.”)

As it turns out, if we turn our attention to ancient Egypt, we may just find the earliest known example of an encrypted message as well.

If you go hunting on the Internet for the earliest examples of cryptography or encryption, you pretty much get one of three results:

  • The ancient Greek scytale
  • The Caesar cipher
  • The Tomb of Khnumhotep II

Naturally, as someone who fancies himself a puzzle historian, I’ve heard of the first two entries on that list.

The scytale is an encryption method where a piece of leather, hide, or parchment (let’s say leather for this example) is wound around a wooden cylinder of a certain width and length. A message is then written on the wound piece of leather. When removed from the cylinder, the message disappears, leaving only a strip of leather with what looks like a jumble of letters on it. Only someone with an identical cylinder can wrap the piece of leather around it and read the intended message. Our earliest verifiable reference to the scytale is from the Greek poet Archilochus in the 7th century BC.

The Caesar cipher is the most famous example of a letter-shifting substitution code where numbers or other letters represent the letters in your message. For example, if B is K in your cipher, then C is L and D is M, as if the alphabet has shifted. See? Simple. Your average cryptogram puzzle is more complex because you’re not simply shifting your letter choices, you’re randomizing them. The Roman historian Suetonius references Caesar’s use of the cipher in his writings during the rule of Hadrian in the second century AD.

But what about this Egyptian tomb?

The tomb in question was built for Khnumhotep II, a nobleman who lived in the twentieth century BC. He carried many impressive titles, including Great Chief of the Oryx nome, hereditary prince and count, foremost of actions, royal sealer, and overseer of the Eastern Desert. (Seriously, with titles like this around, modern companies can clearly do better than manager, CEO, or senior editor. But I digress.)

The main chamber of his tomb features an inscription carved around 1900 BC. This inscription features some strange hieroglyphics. What makes them strange is that they’re in places where you would expect more common hieroglyphs, and it’s believed by some Egyptologists that these substitutions are no accident.

Some do pass it off as an intentional effort to describe the life of Khnumhotep II in more glowing or dignified terms, utilizing loftier verbiage that would be uncommon to any commonfolk readers, similar to how legalese is used today to impress others or intimidate readers.

But others believe it to be the earliest known example of a substitution cipher, utilizing hieroglyphs rather than letters or numbers. For what reason, you ask? To preserve the sacred nature of their religious rituals from the common people.

Unfortunately, this disagreement among scholars makes it hard to point definitively at the tomb of Khnumhotep II as the first written evidence of cryptography.

I guess this falls into the same black hole as the first bit of wordplay, the first anagram, the first pun, or the first riddle. We’ll never know, because the first examples of all of these would most likely be spoken, not written. It’s not until someone decides to record it — in pictograph form, in a carving, in a bit of ancient graffiti to be discovered centuries later — that it becomes evidence to be discovered centuries later.

And who’s to say that the linguists and cryptography believers aren’t both correct? A substitution cipher is, at heart, simply an agreed-upon way to say one thing represents or means another thing. A euphemism, an idiom, a common slang word… heck, a word you say in front of your kids instead of a swear. These are all very simple substitution ciphers.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

What we do know is that there was some wordplay afoot in the tomb of Khnumhotep II, even if we can’t be sure if the history of ciphers and codes started there.


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The PN Blog 2020 Countdown!

It’s the final blog post of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2020 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


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#10 Farewell, Keith

I don’t mean to start off this countdown on a sad note by mentioning the loss of fellow puzzler and Penny Dell colleague Keith Yarbrough. Writing this post was incredibly difficult, but I am proud of how it turned out. It served as a valuable part of my healing process, allowing me to immerse myself in nothing but good memories of my friend. Giving other people the opportunity to know Keith like I did was a worthwhile experience.

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#9 Tap Code

Exploring the different ways puzzles have been involved in historical moments, either as anecdotes or key aspects, is one of my favorite parts of writing for PuzzleNation Blog. But it’s rare to have a historical story about puzzles that tugs on your heartstrings like this one. The way the Tap code served to keep the spirits of POWs high — and the way that codes and spycraft helped a husband and wife endure the hardships of separation — made this a post with a lot of depth and humanity.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Crossword Commentary

There’s more to writing about crosswords than simply solving puzzles and unraveling clues, and that was especially true this year. The social and cultural aspect of crosswords came up several times, and it’s important to discuss these issues in an open, honest way, even if that means calling out a toxic presence like Timothy Parker, or even questioning the choices of the biggest crossword in the world to hold them accountable.

Whether it was exploring representation in crossword entries and cluing or continuing to debate cultural sensitivity in crossword answers in the major outlets, we took up the torch more than once this year because it was the right thing to do.

encyclo

#6 Best Puzzle Solvers

Last year, we began a series of posts examining the best puzzle solvers in various realms of pop culture, and I very much enjoyed combing through the worlds of horror movies and television for the sharpest minds and most clever problem solvers.

This series continued in 2020, as we delved into literature (for adult readers, young adult readers, AND younger readers, respectively), as well as compiling a list of the worst puzzle solvers in pop culture. We even graded the skills of different fictional crossword constructors to see who was representing the best and worst in puzzle construction in media!

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#5 Crossword Bingo

One of the most clever deconstructions of the medium of crosswords I came across this year was a bingo card a solver made, highlighting words and tropes that frequently appear in modern crosswords. It was a smartly visual way of discussing repetition and pet peeves, but also a sly bit of commentary. So naturally, we couldn’t resist making our own Crossword Bingo card and getting in on the fun.

#4 Pitches for Crossword Mysteries

Hallmark’s Crossword Mysteries series was one of the most noteworthy crossovers between puzzles and popular media last year, and that continued into this year with the third Crossword Mysteries film, Abracadaver. But we couldn’t get the idea of a fourth film — still promised on IMDb and other outlets — out of our heads, so we ended up pitching our own ideas for the fourth installment in the franchise. Writing this, no joke, was one of my favorite silly brainstorming sessions of the entire year.

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#3 The World of Puzzles Adapts

Even in a post celebrating the best, the most satisfying, the most rewarding, and the most enjoyable entries from 2020, you cannot help but at least mention the prevailing circumstances that shaped the entire year. 2020 will forever be the pandemic year in our memories, but it will also be the year that I remember puzzlers and constructors adapting and creating some of the most memorable puzzle experiences I’ve ever had.

From the initial experiment of Crossword Tournament From Your Couch to the creation of the Boswords Fall Themeless League, from tournaments like Boswords and Lollapuzzoola going virtual to the crew at Club Drosselmeyer creating an interactive puzzly radio show for the ages, I was blown away by the wit, ambition, determination, and puzzle-fueled innovation brought to the fore this year.

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#2 Eyes Open

Earlier this year, we made a promise to all of the people standing up for underrepresented and mistreated groups to do our part in helping make the world better for women, for people of color, and for the LGBTQIA+ community. We launched Eyes Open, a puzzle series designed to better educate ourselves and our fellow solvers about important social topics. And that is a promise we will carry into 2021. We hope that, in some small way, we are contributing to a better, more inclusive world.

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#1 Fairness

Part of the prevailing mindset of PuzzleNation Blog is that puzzles can and should be for everyone. They should be fun. And they should be fair.

So this year, two posts stood out to me as epitomizing that spirit. The first was a discussion of intuitive vs non-intuitive puzzles, which I feel is very relevant these days, given the proliferation of different puzzle experiences like escape rooms out there.

The second, quite simply, was a response to a friend’s Facebook post where she felt guilty for looking up answers she didn’t know in a crossword, calling it “cheating.” I tried to reassure her there was no such thing as cheating in crosswords.

And since I couldn’t decide between these two posts for the top spot in our countdown, I’m putting them both here, because I feel like they represent a similar spirit. I hope you feel the same.


Thanks for spending 2020 with us, through brain teasers and big ideas, through Hallmark mysteries and Halloween puns, through puzzle launches and landmark moments. We’ll see you in 2021.

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Where Puzzles, Knitting, and Spycraft Combine!

You might have seen the news story last year about a woman who chronicled numerous train delays with her knitting while she worked on a scarf. (Though you probably didn’t hear that it sold on eBay for over 7,000 Euros.)

Knitting is a clever way to both eat up downtime waiting for the train and also document how long that train made you wait. Moreover, it’s sending a message in an unusual fashion — an image that speaks volumes.

And one thing we’ve learned over the years is that when you can send a message without words, spy agencies will jump on that bandwagon.

So it should come as no surprise to you that knitting has been part of spycraft techniques for decades.

True, it is far more common from someone to simply passively observe the enemy WHILE knitting and hiding in plain sight. This was very common in countries all over Europe. When you consider how often volunteers were encouraged to knit warm hats, scarves, and gloves for soldiers during wartime, it wouldn’t be unusual to see people knitting all over the place.

Some passed secret messages hidden in balls of yarn. Elizabeth Bently, an American who spied for the Soviet Union during WWII, snuck plans for B-29 bombs and other aircraft construction information to her contacts in her knitting bag.

Another agent, Phyllis Latour Doyle, had different codes to choose from on a length of silk, so she kept it with her knitting to remain inconspicuous. She would poke each code she used with a pin so it wouldn’t be employed a second time — making it harder for the Germans to break them.

But there was a small contingent of folks who went deeper, actually encoding messages in their knitting to pass on intelligence agencies.

It makes sense. Knitting is essentially binary code. Whereas binary code is made up of ones and zeroes (and some key spacing), knitting consists of knit stitches and purl stitches, each with different qualities that make for an easily discernable pattern, if you know what you’re looking for. So, an attentive spy or informant could knit chains of smooth stitches and little bumps, hiding information as they record it.

When you factor Morse code into the mix, knitting seems like an obvious technique for transmitting secret messages.

[What is this Christmas sweater trying to tell us?]

During World Wars I and II, this was used to keep track of enemy train movements, deliveries, soldiers’ patrol patterns, cargo shipments, and more, particularly in Belgium and France. There are examples of codes hidden through knitting, embroidery, hooked rugs, and other creations, often right under the noses of the enemy.

As more intelligence agencies picked up on the technique, it started to breed paranoia, even in organizations that continued to use knitters as passive spies and active encryption agents.

There were rumors that Germans were knitting entire sweaters full of information, then unraveling them and hanging the threads in special doorways where the letters of the alphabet were marked at different heights, allowing these elaborate messages to be decoded.

Of course, this could be apocryphal. There’s no proof such overly detailed sweaters were ever produced or unraveled and decoded in this manner. (Plus, a knitter would have to be pretty exact with their spacing for the doorway-alphabet thing to work seamlessly.)

During the Second World War, the UK’s Office of Censorship actually banned people from using the mail to send knitting patterns abroad, for fear that they contained coded messages.

Naturally, a puzzly mind could do all sorts of things with an idea like this. You could encode secret love notes for someone you admire or care for, or maybe encrypt a snide comment in a scarf for somebody you don’t particularly like. It’s passive aggressive, sure, but it’s also hilarious and very creative.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to unravel this gift from my aunt and see if she’s talking crap about me through my adorable mittens.

Happy puzzling, everybody!

[For more information on this topic, check out this wonderful article by Natalie Zarrelli.]


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What makes a great riddle?

[Image courtesy of PNG Find.]

I have always suspected that riddles were our first experiments with puzzles and puzzly thinking. Long before crosswords, Sudoku, codebreaking, and magic squares, the potential for wordplay and outside-the-box thinking would have appealed to storytellers, teachers, philosophers, and other deep thinkers.

Who doesn’t enjoy unraveling a riddle, parsing the carefully constructed sentences for every hint and nuance lurking within, and then extracting that tiny purest nugget of a solution from the ether?

Riddles appeal to our love of story and adventure, of heroes with wits as sharp as their swords. Riddles are the domain of gatekeepers and tricksters, monsters and trap rooms from the best Dungeons & Dragons quests.

And so, for centuries upon centuries, even up to the modern day, riddles have been a challenging and intriguing part of the world of puzzling.

We can trace them back to the Greeks, to Ancient Sumeria, to the Bible through Samson, and to mythology through the Sphinx. Riddles abound in literature; we find riddles in Shakespeare, in the works of Joyce, Carroll, and Austen, all the way up to the modern day with The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Every locked room mystery and impossible crime is a riddle to be unraveled.

[Image courtesy of Campbell County Public Library.]

But this raises a crucial question: what makes a good riddle?

At first glance, it should be confusing or elusive. But after some thought, there should be enough information within the riddle to provide a solution, either through wordplay/punnery OR through looking at the problem from a different perspective.

Let’s look at an example. In this instance, we’ll examine the riddle from Jane Austen’s Emma, which is posed to the title character by a potential suitor:

My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!

The answer is “courtship.”

The first half of the riddle refers to the playground of royalty — court — and the second half to the domain of her suitor — ship — and when combined they form the suitor’s desire. This riddle is confusingly worded, to be sure, but it makes sense when analyzed and it’s totally reasonable when the clever Emma figures out the answer… and turns down the suitor’s attempt at riddly courtship.

[Image courtesy of Yale.edu.]

So, what’s an example of a bad riddle? Well, unfortunately, we don’t have to look too hard for an example of one. Let’s examine Samson’s riddle from The Book of Judges in the Old Testament, which he poses to his dinner guests (with a wager attached):

Out of the eater,
something to eat;
out of the strong,
something sweet.

The answer, bafflingly, is “bees making a honeycomb inside the carcass of a lion.”

This is borderline nonsense unless Samson actually told you the story of killing a lion with his bare hands and later returning to the corpse to find bees building a hive inside. So, basically, this riddle not only screws over his dinner guests — who lost a wager to buy fine clothing if they couldn’t solve the rigged riddle — and serves as an excuse to brag about killing a lion. Samson is a jerk.

This is a bad riddle, because it’s designed to be confusing, but does not offer enough information to get to the desired solution. It’s purposely unsolvable, and that sucks. Riddles shouldn’t be arbitrary or nonsensical.

James Joyce pulled this in Ulysses. Lewis Carroll pulled it in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And each of these examples give riddles a bad name. (Even if they do serve a literary purpose, as scholars claim they do in the Joyce and Carroll examples.)

Even if you want the hero to seem (or be) smarter than the reader, the riddle should still make sense. When confronted with five riddles by Gollum in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins solves four of them (and answers the fifth through charmingly dumb luck). It doesn’t hurt his character or make the reader feel like they’re being cheated when these riddles are resolved.

That’s another quality of a great riddle. Even if you don’t solve it, when you DO find the answer, it should feel like you were outwitted and you learned something, not that you were involved in a rigged game.

Oh, and speaking of learning, that reminds me of another example of a challenging yet fair riddle, one that comes from Ancient Sumeria (now, modern-day Iraq):

There is a house. One enters it blind and comes out seeing. What is it?

The answer, as you might have puzzled out, is “a school.”

Riddles can be devious or tricky; they can rely on misdirection, our own assumptions and biases, or careful word choice to befuddle the reader. But they should always be learning experiences, like the house you enter blind and leave seeing.

What are some of your favorite riddles, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Updates From Alex Trebek on His Health and Plans for Jeopardy!

One of the biggest news stories of the last few years in the world of puzzles and games has been Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek’s ongoing battle with pancreatic cancer.

If you somehow don’t already know, Trebek was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer early last year, and he has been giving fans and well-wishers periodic updates on his condition.

Back when he first announced his diagnosis, Trebek stated, “I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease,” then joked, “I have to because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years.”

Despite the hardships both obvious and unseen during his treatment, Alex has continually proven to be a beacon of strength and support for those suffering with similar ailments.

Recently, Alex has been offering updates on both his health and the future of Jeopardy! during the pandemic.

In this video, he discusses his optimism regarding returning to his hosting duties, as well as plans to open the vault for the first time and re-air old episodes of the show:

In fact, last night, the very first episode of Jeopardy! Alex hosted was aired. (To be clear, I mean the official debut episode from September 10, 1984, not the 1983 pilot.)

It’s quite a blast from the past:

And that’s not all he shared with his loyal viewing audience.

Yesterday, in an exclusive interview with Good Morning America, Alex opened up about several topics, including his ongoing cancer treatment, looking forward to resuming his hosting duties, and what comes next.

He revealed some details on his upcoming memoirs. Not only will the autobiography beat an unauthorized biography to market, but the proceeds from the book’s advance and sales will all go to charity.

Although Trebek was honest — devastatingly so, at points — about the bad days he has endured, there is a strong thread of optimism throughout the interview. When the interviewer asked if Trebek had ever considered that he might have already hosted his last episode of Jeopardy!, Trebek replied that the thought had never crossed his mind.

You can watch the full video here:

No matter what the future holds for one of television’s most prolific hosts, you can be sure that we’ll be watching.

All our best wishes to you, Alex.


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Did a Typo Help Defeat the Enigma Code and Win World War II?

During World War II, the Enigma code was one of the most daunting weapons in the German arsenal. Cracking the code would be the key to intercepting crucial information and outmaneuvering the Nazi war machine. In fact, unraveling the secrets of Enigma was so important that both England and the United States poured massive resources into building their own codebreaking operations, Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall, respectively.

Loads of fascinating information about the day-to-day operations of Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall have emerged over the last decade or so, and one of the most peculiar anecdotes to make the rounds recently claims that a typo is partially responsible for cracking Enigma.

As the story goes, a man named Geoffrey Tandy was recruited by the UK Ministry of Defense to work at Bletchley Park as part of their growing team of cryptography experts. Scholars and professions from all over the country were being enlisted in the war effort, and cryptographers (or cryptogramists) were at the top of the list.

But Tandy wasn’t a cryptogramist. He was a cryptogamist, aka an expert on mosses, algae, and lichen.

Despite the error, Tandy remained at Bletchley Park, and a year or two after his mistaken hiring, his expertise proved invaluable when a German U-boat was sunk and cryptographic documents relating to Enigma were recovered. You see, his experience preserving water-damaged materials and specimens helped salvage the water-logged documents so they could be used to crack the German code.

And thus, a typo helped end World War II.

cryptogam

[Image courtesy of Did You Know Facts.]

It’s a great story. And like many great stories, there’s a hint of truth to it. There’s also a lot of exaggeration to make it a tale for the ages.

It was no fluke that Tandy was recruited for Bletchley Park. In addition to his cryptogamist credentials, he was assistant keeper of botany at the National History Museum of London. His work included managing the voluminous library, working with fragile documents and samples, and a facility with multiple languages.

Those linguistic skills and organizational talents made him a perfect choice for Bletchley Park, since they were recruiting all sorts of experts. Remember that the field of cryptography was in its early stages. You couldn’t just go looking for cryptographers. You had to build them from scratch, as well as the folks who would be support staff for those codebreakers-in-training.

That would be Tandy’s role. He was part of a division known as NS VI, responsible for archiving foreign documents and helping the cryptographers deal with any technical jargon they might encounter, particularly in foreign languages.

tandy

[Image courtesy of the National Museum of Australia.]

So where did the typo idea come from?

Well, it’s entirely possible it came from Tandy. The cryptogram/cryptogam mistake is just the sort of joke that would appeal to linguists and other professorial types, so either another member of the Bletchley Park team or Tandy himself could have downplayed his credentials in tongue-in-cheek fashion with the story of an erroneous typo.

As for the other part of the story — where he saved the documents — there is some debate as to whether that happened. As the story goes, he used his knowledge of preserving documents to save a waterlogged set of cryptographic codes from a sunken U-boat.

[Image courtesy of Military Factory.]

The anecdote as reported usually cites the year 1941, whereas many books about Bletchley Park’s codebreaking efforts reference a U-boat from 1942, U-559, where documents AND a working Enigma machine were recovered.

I believe he DID participate in rescuing/preserving documents from a U-boat because it’s not some great heroic deed, it’s literally part of why he was hired in the first place. The crux of the anecdote is on the wordplay and the faux-fortuitousness of his employment, not on the actual events.

So, in the end, no, a typo didn’t help end World War II. But Geoffrey Tandy certainly did.


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