Monday, May 16, 2011

Secret Couriers, Secret Codes

The Six Unsolvable Ciphers

With the recent capture of the world's most wanted terrorist, a lot has been said about the importance of couriers. In my upcoming political thriller The Time of the Eleven, codes and couriers also play a substantial role. In ancient Greece, couriers had their heads shaved and secret messages written on their scalps. When the hair had grown back, the courier was sent on his way. After arriving at the destination, the messenger would shave his head to reveal the hidden message. When a more secure form of delivering messages was needed, (as well as a speedier one) the science of cryptography was born.

Derived from the Greek word Kryptos, meaning hidden, the purpose of cryptography is not to hide the existence of a message, but to hide its meaning, in other words, to scramble it. Hiding an already coded message is called Steganography, meaning covered writing. Invisible ink and microdots are examples. Today secret messages can even be hidden inside tiny pixels on a computer.

From the cipher of Mary, Queen of Scots, (the discovery of which led to her death) to the Zimmerman telegram during World War I and the Enigma machine during World War II, codes have been used extensively during wartime as a means of transmitting top-secret information. However, these codes have been solved. The ones listed below have not.

Kryptos--a large sculpture located in the courtyard of CIA headquarters in Virginia. Hidden from the public, the code on this sculpture is written in four parts. Three parts have been solved, but the last ninety-eight characters remain a mystery. The creator of the sculpture has been asked whether the rest of the code refers to something buried on the CIA grounds, but has declined to answer. Dan Brown made reference to this in the Lost Symbol.

The Voynich Manuscript--A rare book dealer bought this strange manuscript in 1961. Lacking a title and unsigned, the book is filled with eerie full color plates, strange symbols that do not match any known language and may be at least 400 years old. Now in the possession of Yale University, it can only be viewed under strict supervision and is valued at millions of dollars. This is the world's oldest and longest unsolved public cipher. Read Brett King's The Radix for a fictional account.

Shugborough--the Shepherd's Monument--The text is only ten letters long and is found in the gardens of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, England, engraved on a stone monument, commissioned in 1748. The code is as follows: O.U.O.S.V.A.V.V. and beneath that, the letters "D" and "M" are written. Above the inscription is a carved marble relief of a painting: Les Bergers d'Arcadie II.

The Beale Papers--Anyone who solves this code will find a huge treasure trove hidden in Virginia--over 2,921 pounds of gold and 5,100 pounds of silver, worth over thirty million dollars today. The three ciphers consist of a series of numbers. Only the second cipher has been broken using a book code, where specific pages, words and letters on a page are each given a numerical value. A very famous text was used to solve a portion of this cipher. Think National Treasure. I also used the idea of the Beale papers in my book The Secret Sentinel.

Dorabella Cipher--a coded letter written by the famous British composer Edward Elgar to Dora Penny, dated July 1897. Consisting of eighty-seven characters over three lines, the code could be based on a twenty-four symbol alphabet or may even be more complex. Elgar, best known as the composer of Pomp and Circumstance, was interested in ciphers. The note lay in a diary for forty years and has never been solved. It may have contained sentiments of affection from an older man to a much younger woman. Romance authors, take note!

The Zodiac Killer's Code--The Zodiac serial killer operated in northern California in the late 60's and early 70's. His identity remains unknown. He sent a series of letters to Bay area newspapers, which included four cryptograms. Only one was ever solved. The code utilized a strange mixture of English capital letters, plus other symbols (the inverted V and the V filled in). In all, the killer used sixty-five symbols. It's suspected that the remaining three ciphers could have been written by someone obsessed with the case, rather than the killer.

Does anyone know what the picture above represents?
(Thanks to the wonderful book The Six Unsolved Ciphers by Richard Belfield)

Next Week: Plot Wreckers: When a Good Plot Idea Goes Bad


Julianne said...

So interesting, Alison, thank you! This is a more timely article than you know. ;) I feel a story coming on! *lol*

wlynnchantale said...

Totally fascinating. I'm inspired to write a thriller. Did you see the story on yahoo about the FBI asking for public help to solve a cipher. Even they were stumped.

Sandra Koehler said...

It is fascinating, isn't it and no I did not see that story...have to google it...thought you would enjoy that romance angle about the Dorabella cipher; it just screams story, doesn't it! Alison