An international team of computer scientists has cracked a manuscript detailing rituals of an 18th-century German secret society.
The text, known as the Copiale Cipher, is a 105-page book that was written in a combination of elaborate symbols and Roman letters. Previous attempts to decode it had failed, and it was clear that the cipher being used was more sophisticated than most. It is located in the former East Germany and was signed by a "Philipp" in 1866.
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Kevin Knight, a computer scientist at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, collaborated with two colleagues, Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden. They found that the text was in a sophisticated substitution cipher, which means that the letters one would expect were replaced with symbols.
Such ciphers are common in children's games –- you might remember the "pigpen cipher" or shifting letters (making an "A" into a "C," a "B" into a "D" and so on) from grade school. The Copiale manuscript was a step above that. Knight and his team originally thought –- as had many others –- that the visible Roman letters in the text were the coded message. But when they tried replacing those letters with others, all they got was nonsense.