Scientists Crack The Mysterious “Copiale Cipher”

The Copiale cipher is an encrypted manuscript consisting of 75,000 handwritten characters filling 105 pages in a bound volume. It is th...

Copiale cipher

The Copiale cipher is an encrypted manuscript consisting of 75,000 handwritten characters filling 105 pages in a bound volume. It is thought to date to between 1760 and 1780. It was first examined at the German Academy of Science at Berlin in the 1970s but did not come to public attention until 2011 when an international team announced that they had deciphered In April 2011, it was decoded with the help of modern computer techniques by Kevin Knight of the University of Southern California, along with Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden. They found it to be a complex substitution code.

The manuscript includes abstract symbols, as well as letters from Greek and most of the Roman alphabet. The only plain text in the book is "Copiales 3" at the end and "Philipp 1866" on the flyleaf. Philipp is thought to have been an owner of the manuscript. The plain-text letters of the message were found to be encoded by accented Roman letters, Greek letters and symbols, with unaccented Roman letters serving only to represent spaces.

Copiale cipher

The researchers found that the initial portion of 16 pages describes an initiation ceremony for a secret society namely the "oculist order" of Wolfenbüttel. A parallel manuscript is kept at the Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv, Staatsarchiv Wolfenbüttel. The document describes an initiation ritual.

Cryptographists just deciphered one of the famous indecipherable texts of the 18th century. An American-Swedish collaboration has finally cracked The Copiale Cipher. The book’s pages — bound in gold and green brocade paper — contained about 75,000 characters in very neat handwriting.

These characters are handwritten very neatly but consist of a perplexing mix of upper- and lower-case Roman letters, along with a large assortment of more abstract symbols. In total, the Cipher contains 90 distinct characters, including 26 unaccented Roman letters. Adding to the confusion is the lack of spacing between words.

Kevin Knight, a senior research scientist and fellow at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California (USC), was intrigued by an 18th century document.

Dr Knight, who primarily conducts research in computational linguistics and machine translation, doesn't have much experience in cryptography. But undeterred, he began collaborating this year with two Swedish linguists, Beata Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University, with the goal to decipher The Copiale Cipher.

After a few dead-ends, the team realize that the Roman characters designated spaces between words whilst the abstract symbols contained the actual information. At first, Knight and his team isolated the Roman and Greek characters, figuring that they might be the real message, and attacked it with a home-made translation project. Eighty different languages, and many hours later, and nothing happened. “It took quite a long time and resulted in complete failure.” They also discovered that a colon indicated that the previous consonant is duplicated. After they predicted that the Cipher was an encryption of the German language and then subjected the Cipher to a word-frequency analysis, things quickly fell into place. The team could finally read the text of the Cipher.

Dr Knight and his colleagues found that The Copiale Cipher describes the rituals and some of the political ideals of a German secret society from the 1730s. They also learned that this society was fascinated by eye surgery and ophthalmology, although none of its members were practitioners.

"This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies", says Dr Knight. He cites several modern examples of challenging ciphers, such as the communications from the still-unidentified Zodiac Killer to the California police in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Kryptos sculpture, located on grounds of the C.I.A. headquarters in the United States, which has been only partly decoded.

The team realised that the known characters were just there to mislead. So they booted them out and looked at the symbols. They theorised that abstract symbols with similar shapes might represent the same letter, or groups of letters. They tested this with different languages and when German was used, some meaningful words emerged — “Ceremonies of Initiation”, followed by “Secret Section”.

Historians think that secret societies played a role in revolutions, but their importance is not known at this time because so many documents are enciphered.

"There are these books and ancient languages of real historical value that contain historical information that we just can't get out yet, and that's of interest to a lot of people," Dr Knight .

book of law
book of law

the illuminated – e -

secret part

first section

secret instruction of the apprentices.

first title.

ceremonies of introduction.

if the seurity of the – through the elder gatekeeper is accomplished and the – of the conductor is inaugurated with the donning of his hat, the candidate is retrieved from another room by the younger gatekeeper and led by the hand in front of the conductor’s – desk who asks him: firstly, if he desires to become - secondly, if he will submit himself to the requisitions and if he will endure the period of his apprenticeship without contumacy.

thirdly, the – the – [...] to keep secret and if he will mandatorily comply [this part is hard because there are bits missing. But basically, it says, keep your mouth shut and obey.]

the candidate answers yes.



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