Throughout history there has been the propensity of our kind to come up with progressively innovative ways to keep information hidden. To this effect we have come up with all manner of puzzles, riddles, codes, and ciphers, all designed expressly for the purpose of befuddling all those who would try and grasp what we are saying. In some cases, these messages have gone out into the world to remain unanswered, going on to prove to be unchallenged enigmas that serve to stir the imagination and baffle the mind. These are some of the various codes and ciphers that have been unleashed into the world, yet which have yet to be understood by anyone who looks upon them, their secrets elusive specters beyond our reach.
Encrypted messages themselves are nothing new. Strange codes go way back, and one of the weirdest comes from 1539, appearing in a volume of Teseo Ambrogio Albonesi’s rather unwieldy titled Introductio in Chaldaicam linguam, Syriacam atque Armenicam et decem alias linguas characterum differentium alphabeta circiter quadraginta et eorundem invicem conformatio. The cipher in this case is said to have been written by a man called Ludovico Spoletano, who is said to have been possessed by the Devil for a time, and when he snapped out of it he realized that he had scrawled down an arcane and rather odd message, which in fact appeared to be the Devil’s very own handwriting.
The letters themselves were reminiscent of the ancient language of Amharic, said to have been the tongue used in the actual Garden of Eden, although it could not be known for sure, and the whole bizarre, supernatural tale propelled the mysterious text into the public imagination at the time. The cryptic, arcane message drew droves of curiosity seekers, and during the reign of King Charles II tourists flocked to see the copy of Aldonsi’s work that was displayed at Queen’s College. The message would later be printed in the book The Devil in Britain and America, by John Ashton in 1869, which renewed public interest in the strange cipher, with Ashton saying of it:
It is supposed to be the only specimen of Satanic cal[l]igraphy in existence and is taken from the ‘Introductio in Chaldaicam Linguam,’ etc., by Albonesi (Pavia, 1532). The author says that by the conjuration of Ludovico Spoletano the Devil was called up, and adjured to write a legible and clear answer to a question asked him. Some invisible power took the pen, which seemed suspended in the air, and rapidly wrote what is facsimiled. The writing was given to Albonesi (who, however, confesses that no one can decipher it), and his chief printer reproduced it very accurately.
The thing about this particular instance of what has come to be called “The Devil’s Handwriting,” is that no one has the slightest idea of what it actually says. Intense efforts to crack the code by cryptography experts, codebreakers, and linguists have proved to be utterly futile, and no one is any closer to solving its enigma now than they were in the 16th century. Of course there are some who say that the Devil really did write the message, and that it is something well beyond our meager ability to ever comprehend, but more likely it is a cipher that was written and then spruced up with supernatural talk of the Devil to give it a spooky vibe and resonance, which was apparently not an uncommon thing to do at the time, or also that it is was even a hoax. Crypto historian Nick Pelling, of the website ciphermysteries.com has this to say on the matter:
However, from my own crypto historian viewpoint, I have to say that Trithemius’ idea of hiding ciphers behind a demonological or necromantic facade was very much of the moment circa 1532: so I strongly suspect that what we’re looking at here is probably a cipher concealed behind a devilish story, rather than (say) some kind of quasi-moralistic hoax. Hence I suspect that we are almost certainly looking at a cipher, albeit one whose alphabet has a consciously Satanic twist (e.g. the pitchforks and bats are pretty good hints as to whom the author is supposed to be).
Whatever it is, or whoever (or whatever) really wrote it, the cipher of The Devil’s Handwriting has never been cracked. While in this case the cipher’s intent remains unclear, other mysterious codes have a more concrete purpose. In the 1820, a man by the name of Thomas Jefferson Beale supposedly buried a couple of wagons bogged down with gold at a secret location somewhere in Bedford County, Virginia, in the United States. Beale then allegedly dropped off a tiny locked box at a local inn and then went off to disappear off the face of the earth.
The box supposedly remained unopened for many years, after which the innkeeper’s curiosity got the better of him and, realizing that Beale was probably never coming back, he decided to open it to see what was inside. Within the box was a simple piece of paper upon which were scrawled three lines of a strange code in the form of strings of seemingly random numbers, which no matter how hard he tried the innkeeper could not possibly decipher, despite spending quite a few years devoted to the task. Right before he died in 1863, the innkeeper entrusted the codes to a close friend, who was later after much feverish study able to decode just one of the lines, which stated that there was a vast trove of treasure buried somewhere in Bedford, and that the rest of the codes outlined its position.
Of course, this was enough to cause renewed efforts to solve the enigma of the codes, but they proved to be frustratingly impossible to crack. News of the secret Beale codes and the treasure they hid came to public attention in 1885, with the publishing of a pamphlet by a James B. Ward called The Beale Papers, which presented the strange codes and proclaimed that vast riches awaited whoever was able to actually solve them. The news created an excited rush of people trying to find the gold, silver and jewels said to be buried out there, and many claimed that they had solved the code, but no one was ever able to prove this and indeed the stash remained unfound. Some people were so desperate to find the gold that they basically dug in random places, with only the first line of the solved code to go on.
In later years there have been continuing claims from people saying that they have cracked some of the Beale Code. In 1980, computer scientist Jim Gillogly claimed that he had deciphered another line of the code, but that it was filled with anomalies and senseless words that suggested to him that the whole thing was a hoax. Others have claimed to have solved the code as well, but no one has been able to come forward with the exact means by which they were able to achieve this, and the purported treasure itself has never been uncovered. Is it all a hoax or is there really a fortune lying in wait somewhere in Bedford County? There is only one way to find out, and that is to crack the mystery of Beale’s Code.
Besides hiding the location to buried treasure, other seemingly unbreakable codes have served the purpose of obfuscating secret messages, which can be seen most prominently in the various codes and ciphers used during World War II to mask secret messages from the enemy. One of the weirder of such codes was found decades after the war had actually ended, and was discovered within a tiny red capsule tied around a long dead pigeon found lodged within the chimney of a home in Bletchingley, Surrey, in the United Kingdom during home renovations.
That a secret code should be tied around the leg of a pigeon is not in itself so unusual. During World War II’s notorious D-Day, on June 6, 1944, British forces trapped in France found themselves under a total radio blackout, and resorted to using homing pigeons to send out messages to England. Indeed, pigeons were used by Allied forces throughout the war, with a whole squadron of a whopping 250,000 pigeons for such purposes called the National Pigeon Service. In this case, the pigeon unfortunately managed to get itself stuck in the chimney, possibly from becoming somehow disoriented during its journey, meaning its possibly valuable message never got through. The thing is, no one can quite figure out what the message even says. The message itself is made up of 27 codes, with each one of these made up of five letters or numbers. The entire thing reads as follows:
AOAKN HVPKD FNFJW YIDDC
RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX
PABUZ WYYNP CMPNW HJRZH
NLXKG MEMKK ONOIB AKEEQ
WAOTA RBQRH DJOFM TPZEH
LKXGH RGGHT JRZCQ FNKTQ
KLDTS FQIRW AOAKN 27 1525/6
It is obviously an encrypted message of some kind, but of a type that has not been seen before. Modern day codebreakers have been left stumped, and the code is so old that there seems to be no record on how to actually decipher it, leaving the message stuck in limbo, its meaning murky and lost to time. It is so mysterious that it is not even totally certain who actually sent it or what its actual destination was, and one Colin Hill, of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, has said of it:
The message Mr Martin (the homeowner) found must be highly top secret. The aluminum ring found on the bird’s leg tells us it was born in 1940 and we know it’s an Allied Forces pigeon because of the red capsule it was carrying – but that’s all we know. We suspect it was flying back to Monty’s HQ or Bletchley Park from Nazi occupied Normandy during the invasion. I can only presume it became exhausted and attempted to rest on an open chimney – where it valiantly perished. This is a very special message because most were not written in code. This is written like an enigma message so must have been very secret and very important.
In recent days, the Government Communications Headquarter (GCHQ) has basically given up trying to decode the mysterious message, instead posting the code and hoping that some amateur codebreaker can solve it, or better yet that someone still alive out there who knows the code will come forward with the answer. So far, no one has come forward with a decryption of the code, it remains totally unsolved, and looks like it will continue to be a mystery.
Also with origins from World War II is a code that has rather more mysterious purposes. During the war, a German bomb hit a cellar in East London, the explosion of which dislodged a collection of old, wooden boxes containing numerous pages of apparently handmade paper upon which were written carefully and clearly penned letters, strange geometric diagrams and illustrations which have come to be known as “The Blitz Cipher.” None of any of it makes any sense, and the alphabet used is unrecognizable as being from any known language, leading to all sorts of speculation as to their meanings and origins.
One idea has been that the papers predate the war by many decades, and that they were used by some secret, occult society for inscrutable purposes. Others think that it is all an elaborate hoax, and that the characters have no meaning at all. So far, 8 pages of the text have been made available for public scrutiny, but no one has been able to figure any of it out, a situation not helped at all by the fact that much of the text has become badly faded over time. What lies on these mysterious pages? Who wrote them and why? No one really knows.
Just as mysterious in its purpose is a code that was penned by English composer Edward Elgar, who also happened to dabble in cryptography. On July 14, 1897, Elgar wrote a letter to his friend Dorabella Penny, which consisted of 87 characters, most of which are made up of numerous semi-circles in various states and configurations, also including 24 outlandish squiggly shapes with no apparent meaning at all. Indeed, the whole thing seems at first glance to be complete gibberish, and it might as well be for all anyone knows.
Dorabella would eventually publish the strange message in her memoirs, and over the decades many would try to crack its meaning, all without success. One of the problems has been that the code is so short, leaving very little for would be codebreakers to work with, especially if it is, as suspected, a “substitution cipher,” meaning that each of the symbols corresponds to a letter of the alphabet. A popular theory is that the message was based on a secret code that only the two of them shared, meaning that it would be pretty much impossible for anyone else to decipher, but Dorabella herself claimed that she had never been able to glean any meaning from it. Yet another theory is that it is not a message at all, but rather a piece of music hidden in cipher form. Although some people have claimed to have cracked the mystery of Elgar’s letter, the results have proven to be less than convincing, and the message has so far never been satisfactorily decoded. Is it just a personal message to a friend? Is there some revelation hidden within? Who knows?
Other ciphers have been put forth that seems to be an open challenge to crack them. One of these is an intriguing code that was printed by a Russian amateur cryptographer by the name of Alexander D’Agapeyeff in his 1939 book Codes and Ciphers. The whole book is more or less a primer on the world of codes and ciphers, nothing really too in depth or especially revelatory, that is until the end, where there is what is described as a modest cipher to test the reader’s wits. It is basically presented like just a little puzzle tacked on as almost an afterthought, not even included in further editions of the book, yet this “modest” cipher has gone on to propel itself firmly into the annals of great unsolved puzzles.
To this day nobody has been able to solve the little brain teaser at the end of D’Agapeyeff’s book, despite being picked apart by the world’s best cryptographers, and making things a bit more difficult is that the author himself later claimed that he had forgotten just exactly how he had encrypted it, leaving it all firmly suspended in a murky gel of seemingly impenetrable mystery. Interestingly, although the cipher has remained stubbornly unsolved by even the best out there, D’Agapeyeff was relatively new to cryptography at the time and was basically an amateur, so how did he manage to craft such a mind-bendingly difficult code that absolutely no one can solve? Some have speculated that it was precisely because he did not know what he was doing that the cipher remains so unconquerable, as D’Agapeyeff may have incorrectly encrypted it, or added too many dummy characters designed to throw off decryption efforts within it. Although dummy characters, also called “nulls,” can increase the difficulty of decryption, they also run the risk of making the message totally unintelligible to the recipient. Considering that the author himself did not recall how he had done it and it has remained persistently un-cracked for the better part of a century, it seems rather unlikely that we will ever know what this “modest challenge cipher” says.
While D’Agapeyeff’s puzzle was originally meant as a light challenge to invite the casual reader to test their skills, some ciphers have been presented as more of an aggressive, bolder challenge to the masses. In 1999, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Laboratory for Computer Science issued just such a challenge as part of its 35th anniversary celebrations. A meter-long container of lead was created, called the “LCS Time Capsule of Innovations,” with its contents kept as a highly guarded secret. It was announced that the mysterious capsule would be ultimately opened in 2033, that is unless someone could decode a complex cryptographic puzzle. Only when this puzzle is solved will the mysterious container be opened before the set date. The problem is, according to its designer, Ronald L. Rivest, the puzzle has been specifically designed to take approximately 35 years to solve, and is claimed to be immune to the use of high power computers to help solve it, with Rivest saying:
The puzzle is designed to foil attempts of a solver to exploit parallel or distributed computing to speed up the computation. The computation required to solve the puzzle is “intrinsically sequential.” It should take 35 years to solve the puzzle – unless somebody can find a shortcut. A breakthrough in the art of factoring would make the puzzle easier than intended.
The workings of the puzzle itself are all very complicated, but it is basically an English sentence encoded within a sequence of 616 numbers, and it involves solving incredibly difficult mathematical problems and then converting the numbers into their binary form, meaning a series of 1s and 0s, with some of the numbers having hundreds, thousands, millions, or even one number over 7.2 quadrillion digits long. The binary numbers are then compared to the binary form of the digits listed in the code to search for the answer. Since the resultant binary numbers can be compared to the alphabet, the answer can be theoretically found. Simple enough then right? Anyone who think they have solved this unbreakable code before the predicted 35 years are invited to send their answer to the Director of LCS, after which upon approval a ceremony will be arranged for the opening of the capsule. If not, the capsule will be opened as scheduled in September of 2033.
A similar frustrating challenge put out there for all to try is actually overtly etched right into a public sculpture. The work in question, called Kryptos, is a monument erected in front of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in 1990. Designed by the sculptor Jim Sandborn, the copper structure features four coded messages consisting of a total of 1735 seemingly random letters that were thought up by CIA cryptographer Ed Scheidt and meant as a challenge for anyone clever enough to try and solve them. Eventually three of the sections would be solved, with each of the messages interconnected and hinting at an overarching strange mystery, reading as follows, spelling errors and all:
Section 1 – “BETWEEN SUBTLE SHADING AND THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT LIES THE NUANCE OF IQLUSION”
Section 2 – “IT WAS TOTALLY INVISIBLE HOWS THAT POSSIBLE ? THEY USED THE EARTHS MAGNETIC FIELD X THE INFORMATION WAS GATHERED AND TRANSMITTED UNDERGRUUND TO AN UNKNOWN LOCATION X DOES LANGLEY KNOW ABOUT THIS ? THEY SHOULD ITS BURIED OUT THERE SOMEWHERE X WHO KNOWS THE EXACT LOCATION ? ONLY WW THIS WAS HIS LAST MESSAGE X THIRTY EIGHT DEGREES FIFTY SEVEN MINUTES SIX POINT FIVE SECONDS NORTH SEVENTY SEVEN DEGREES EIGHT MINUTES FORTY FOUR SECONDS WEST X LAYER TWO”
Section 3 – “SLOWLY DESPARATLY SLOWLY THE REMAINS OF PASSAGE DEBRIS THAT ENCUMBERED THE LOWER PART OF THE DOORWAY WAS REMOVED WITH TREMBLING HANDS I MADE A TINY BREACH IN THE UPPER LEFT HAND CORNER AND THEN WIDENING THE HOLE A LITTLE I INSERTED THE CANDLE AND PEERED IN THE HOT AIR ESCAPING FROM THE CHAMBER CAUSED THE FLAME TO FLICKER BUT PRESENTLY DETAILS OF THE ROOM WITHIN EMERGED FROM THE MIST X CAN YOU SEE ANYTHING Q ?
It still doesn’t make much sense but it’s a start. Since the first parts were all solved within the first decade of the monument’s unveiling, it would seem that the fourth would follow suit, yet it has remained stubbornly unsolved by all efforts by some of the top analysts and cryptographers in the world to this day. The main problem seems to be that it bears no clear relation to the first three as far as the method for decryption goes, and is its own beast altogether. The fourth code reads:
So elusive is this code’s meaning that the sculpture’s designer, Sanborn, has on several occasions come forward with hints towards solving it, perhaps unable to resist. He first claimed that the first three passages held keys to solving the fourth, after which he admitted in 2006 that a letter was missing. When the code still remained completely unbroken by all efforts, in 2010 Sandborn went as far as to give away whole chunks of the cipher, saying that “NYPVTT” was “Berlin,” and “MZFPK” means “clock.” In 2014 he even further nudged people in the right direction by saying that there were several interesting clocks in Berlin that were worth checking out. Even with this hand holding the fourth part of the Kryptos code has stubbornly defied all attempts to crack it, a situation made all the more frustrating since this is not stored away in some hidden vault but rather sitting out in full view where anyone can see it, as if openly defying those who would dare to take up the challenge. To this day the fourth part of Kryptos and the wider mystery the other three parts seem to hint at have remained unsolved and have stumped all who have attempted to delve into them.
History is littered with such cases of unbreakable codes and enigmatic messages obfuscated by strange numbers and alien tongues. What mysteries or wonders lie hidden within these pieces of hidden knowledge? Are the mysteries held within the fantastic, maps to buried treasures, profound insights, wondrous revelations, spectacular secrets, or merely the mundane? Until someone cracks their mysteries we are to remain in the dark, never to know the answers to these tantalizing questions.