On p.114 of Jerrold Northrop Moore’s weighty “Edward Elgar: A Creative Life”, the author notes that Elgar’s enciphered “Liszt fragment” had been decoded (in 1977, according to Anthony Thorley whose decryption it was) to read:

Gets you to joy, and hysterious

Well… it’s certainly a claim, even if ‘hysterious’ is a made-up word found nowhere else. And one of the (cryptologically, at least) interesting aspects that link this Liszt fragment and Elgar’s Dorabella Cipher is that while both of them seem unlikely to have employed complicated cipher systems, for all of that both also seem improbably hard nuts to crack. You’d certainly need a sweet nutcracker to achieve it. [*]

I’ve discussed Elgar’s Liszt fragment before, written in the left margin of an 1885/1886 Crystal Palace Saturday Concert Programme:

liszt-fragment

The cipher on its own looks like this (sorry, but I don’t have a better scan):-

liszt-fragment-solo

It’s not a great scan, certainly: but given that though the dash looks as though it is meant to sit at the end, and there are several half-space-sized gaps, it looks as though we might be able to transliterate this as:

ABC DECFGB HID CBJKDK

What should be immediately apparent is that there is no obvious way to convert this 3 + 6 + 3 + 6 = 18 letter cryptogram into Thorley’s 25-letter “Gets you to joy, and hysterious”, without a singularly large floor space for mental acrobatics to bounce around on. (If that’s what you want to do, feel free to go ahead.)

And yet, what we undeniably have with the Liszt fragment that we don’t seem to have with the (much later) Dorabella Cipher is context, specifically a musical context. And here I can’t help but notice not only that the Liszt ciphertext seems to have been written in sets of three or sets of six, but also that the music it sits besides also has a very strong emphasis on triplets, groups of three notes.

Moreover, the 18-letter group is written immediately beside an 18-note line of music, “No. 6 Allegretto Pastorale”. Might the first be enciphering the other in some way?

a...b...c...d...e...c...f...g...b...h...i...d...c...b...j...k...d...k...
B...G#..E...B...G#..E...B...B...E...F#..G#..C#..B...G#..F#..E...F#..G#..

I can’t see any obvious cryptographic connection myself here, but I was somewhat surprised to find that nobody had apparently suggested this at least as a reasonable possibility for the Liszt fragment, far more so than for the Dorabella Cipher. (Plenty of people [e.g. Javier Atance, etc etc] have suggested that the Dorabella Cipher might be enciphering music, but that’s another story entirely).

Something to think about, anyway. 🙂

[*] Made me laugh, anyway. 🙂

As promised a long while back (i.e. before I got caught up in pirate history minutiae, etc), I had some interesting emails from Cheltenham music teacher Allan Gillespie, describing his claimed decryption of Elgar’s well-known Dorabella Cipher.

Allan’s starting point seems to have been my hunch that the Dorabella’s first two words were likely to be “Forli, Malvern”, a modest little seed which he then grew out into his own complete decryption.

Specifically, he claims that it’s a vaguely Vigenère-like polyalphabetic cipher, with the key sequence AIUEGSOLXMKWCQZTDPBNYHFR rotated right by five places every eight plaintext characters, i.e.

AIUEGSOLXMKWCQZTDPBNYHFR - for characters #1 to #8
NYHFRAIUEGSOLXMKWCQZTDPB - for characters #9 to #16
ZTDPBNYHFRAIUEGSOLXMKWCQ - for characters #17 to #24
MKWCQZTDPBNYHFRAIUEGSOLX - for characters #25 to #32
GSOLXMKWCQZTDPBNYHFRAIUE - for characters #33 to #39 (etc)

Furthermore, Allan claims (I think) that the output from this gets mapped onto Elgar’s rotated-3 alphabet via this second table (which he presented in a transposed form to make it look as though the keyword was “HAUNTED” [+Y], but it’s actually no more than a monoalphabetic substitution alphabet):-

... N. NE E. SE S. SW W. NW
u.. A. N. E. Y. T. H. D. U.
uu. G. F. ?. R. M. I. ?. Z.
uuu ?. ?. L. B. S. ?. O. C.(Unplaced letters: K P Q W X)

Undo these two stages (he says) and you get a plaintext of:-

ForlE, Malvern Link
A. and Dai’s qko [=quick opinion?]
Met St Stephen ‘eighty six.
Wed at Brompton Oratory but owed takC Mogul ob’d.

He further believes the Dorabella cipher was “concocted by someone other than Elgar (possibly in the run-up to WWII when GC&CS were recruiting; possibly with Dora Powell’s connivance, more likely not)“.

Having said all that, I should add that I’m not entirely sure how serious Allan is about all this; and, moreover, the likelihood that Elgar would have used a messed-up Vigenère in combination with a second substitution stage seems to me to be as close to zero as makes no odds. But all the same, I’ve tried to reproduce Allan’s claim here as clearly as I can, just in case someone else wants to try to reproduce his results.

As you probably already guessed, I’m almost completely sure (as I indeed wrote to Allan at the time) that this “sits in the esteemed and excellent company of those such as Eric Sims and Tony Gaffney who have tried to solve the Dorabella’s cryptographic mystery rather at the expense of its historical mystery“. That is, neither the details (in the allegedly derived cleartext) nor the methodology (that Allan believes to have been used to encrypt the message) cast any light on Elgar, Dora Penny, their relationship, or any reason that such a devilish complex cipher system and linguistically idiosyncratic message would have been appropriate or even useful.

Allan response was that by replying in this way, I was (entirely unsurprisingly) acting in the same way that other cipher mystery establishment figures do, by working hard to “resist any attempt by an outsider to knock down [the establishment’s] battlements”.

Gosh darn it, but doesn’t it just turn out he’s got me bang to rights there? I indeed spend three nights a week chairing a secret cryptographic cabal downstairs at the Athenaeum Club library (or, failing that, Westminster School’s dining hall next to the Abbey) that decides how to misdirect plucky independent codebreakers away from the heretical and uneasy truths behind cipher mysteries. This website is, of course, simply part of our community outreach programme: and let’s face it, when the obfuscating powers of the NSA, GCHQ, and the Bilderberg Group get combined in this way, what chance do all you ordinary people stand, hmmm?

I was writing up a recently-claimed Dorabella Cipher decryption just now, when an incoming email clattered noisily out of the pneumatic mail tube and into my mahogany in-tray. Nicely, it contained a link to a new Dorabella Cipher article by San Francisco writer Mark MacNamara in online magazine Nautilus, jauntily entitled “The Artist of the Unbreakable Code” (i.e. Edward Elgar).

Given that I exchanged some Dorabella-related emails with MacNamara back in his summer research phase, it was no great surprise to discover – as Bill Walsh and others have kindly pointed out during today – that my, errrm, “stego-Bella” suggestion gets a short mention there. 🙂

Regardless, MacNamara covers Elgar’s enigmatic ground at a fair old pace, and works through Tim Roberts’ and Tony Gaffney’s claimed decryptions, along with their angry annoyance (if not outright outrage) at having the ridiculous stuffed shirts of the Elgar Society turn down their decryptions. Really, who were mere musicologists to tread so heavily on the toes of such ingenious and hard-working code-breakers? etc etc.

Of course, Cipher Mysteries regulars will already know what I believe: that Roberts, Gaffney and even Eric Sams produced attempts that were cryptologically clever at the expense of being historically and practically unsound. For me (and it’s just my opinion), any proposed solution should go some way towards explaining not only the message (the crypto mystery) but also the reason or necessity for the cryptographic wrapper (the historical mystery). The practical problem with these three claimed decrypts is that they are as impenetrable unenciphered as ciphered: which is also presumably why people have rarely enciphered alchemical texts. Or legal contracts. Or legislation.

Will we ever see a Dorabella decrypt that is both cryptologically sound and, as the Elgar Society required for their £1500 lucre-pile prize, “glaringly obvious”? I think it is entirely true that such a criterion is both foolishly idealistic and cryptographically inappropriate for judging most ciphertexts, so I am somewhat sympathetic towards Tony Gaffney’s condemnation. But all the same, I really don’t think our Tone has cracked this particular curate’s egg of a cipher just yet, hen’s shells or no. Perhaps hen’s teeth might be closer? 🙂

Anyway, I rather liked MacNamara’s article, and would recommend it to you with only a few minor corrections:-
(1) Elgar only called Dora Penny “Dorabella” after 1897
(2) The cipher isn’t too short to analyse – in fact, simple substitution ciphers are usually breakable with roughly 30 characters (and this has 87). With a good guess and a bit of luck, you may need only 20 characters, or even 15. Which is why it’s so odd we can’t crack it – really, if it were simple we should have more than enough “depth” to crack it.
(3) The cipher doesn’t strictly “defy” frequency analysis – it’s letter frequencies are what they are. In fact, frequency analysis makes it seem even more likely to be a simple substitution cipher. Rather, the Dorabella Cipher defies its own strong resemblance to a simple substitution cipher.
(4) Elgar not only sent Dora Penny no other ciphers (either before or after), but they never talked about ciphers in their relationship that spanned many decades.
(5) It;s not really accurate to say that I have yet “come to believe” my whole stego-Bella hypothesis. Rather, I have come to disbelieve most of the presumptions that other people have built their own theories upon: and the stego-Bella thing is just my first proper attempt to think outside the generally-accepted Dorabella crypto box. It’s early days, but we shall see where it all eventually leads…

Enjoy! 🙂

As regular Cipher Mysteries readers will know, Edward Elgar’s most famous ciphertext is the Dorabella Cipher, a tiny cryptographic walnut that continues (more than a century after it was produced) to defy all cryptologic jackhammers sent to crack it.

A confusing part of the mystery is that in the 1920s, Elgar (re-)used the same pigpen-style “rotating-3” alphabet as a simple substitution cipher in two pages of his notebooks (the “MARCO ELGAR” / “A VERY OLD CYPHER” / “DO YOU GO TO LONDON TOMORROW?” page reproduced here. These messages are easily deciphered (helpfully, the key is reproduced on the page itself), so the two ciphertexts appear to have nothing to do with each other apart from their shared alphabet.

Furthermore, what I didn’t realise until last year (but never quite got round to mentioning here) is that Elgar re-used these same cipher shapes in two other places. Firstly, the “Liszt fragment” in the margin of an 1885/1886 Crystal Palace Saturday Concert Programme, which is basically a string of the same rotating-3 alphabet:

liszt-fragment

Tony Gaffney thinks that this is trivially solvable by using one of the “clock-face” diagrams from the 1920s notebook, but I think this mainly depends on whether you think the kind of language Tony believes the main Dorabella cipher was enciphering had the same kind of allusive & abbreviated private codewords as this (short) message.

But there is also one other place we know of in Elgar’s notes where these distinctive shapes appear, and it is in a decidedly cryptographic context. In 1896, the Pall Mall Magazine published an article with an “uncrackable” code challenge for readers, one based on the Russian Nihilist cipher. However, Elgar took such great delight in cracking it that he later had it painted on the floor: he also wrote his explanation on nine cards (“the Courage card set”).

What is odd is that ten of the rotating-3 alphabet letters appear on the first card of this set. The description given of these is of the set of eight rotating triple cup shapes, followed by an upward-facing double cup and finishing with an upward facing single cup. I haven’t seen an image of this in context, but Christian Schridde reconstructed one for one of his very readable “NumberWorld” blog posts on the Dorabella Cipher:-

Courage

In Christian’s third Dorabella post, he muses on the timeline aspects: that the Liszt fragment is more than a decade earlier than Dorabella, while the “MARCO ELGAR” page is more than two decades later. By contrast, the ink was only just dry on the Courage card set when the Dorabella cipher itself was written.

Schridde therefore wonders whether the Dorabella cipher might use some element of the Nihilist cipher (which, itself, is a kind of bodged-together mix of Polybius square and Vigenère cipher): certainly, this cipher must have been almost as fresh in Elgar’s mind as the paint on his wooden floor.

On the one hand, the fact that there are ten rotating-3 symbols on the card seems to vaguely imply that Elgar was trying to see a way of mapping a set of digits [0-9] onto his rotating-3 alphabet: which, given that the Nihilist cipher system enciphers individual plaintext letters as 2- or 3-digit numbers, does seem oddly coincidental.

And yet there is no obvious sign of digit pairing or grouping, which you’d perhaps expect if you were seeing something Polybius-style or perhaps groups of digits: the ABAB-style length pattern at the start of the Dorabella (2323121312…) quickly disappear, replaced by quite different structures (e.g. 22222 and 111111 on the second line).

At one point, I also wondered whether the sequence on the first Courage card might in fact be a kind of length-10 sequence to offset the Dorabella symbols, that I previously called a “rotating pigpen”, e.g.

+0/0, +1/0, +2/0, +3/0, +4/0, +5/0, +6/0, +7/0, 0/-1, 0/-2

Well, given that this is a reasonable possibility, I tried out a few variants of it in Excel… but nothing plausible-looking jumped out at me, which was basically what happened when I tried a similar rotating pigpen in C code hack before.

I really don’t know what’s going on with all Elgar’s cipher bits, particularly the Liszt fragment. Of his three undecrypted mini-ciphertexts, the Dorabella is in some ways the least odd – it at least looks like a proper cryptogram with proper-looking statistics, something to get your cryptologic teeth into. The mystery deepens! 🙂

In the red corner we have #1 codebreaking musicologist Eric Sams: and in the blue corner, historical mystery specialist Beatrice Gwynn! Who will be the winner in tonight’s Dorabella Cipher Ultimate Smaaaaackdooooown?

A frisson of crypto excitement ripples through the crowd as Eric Sams rises to his feet. He’s humming to himself, rhythmically pounding his gloves, and with a gleam in his eyes that’s well-earned: his 1970 Musical Times article has been in the bibliography of nearly every Dorabella Cipher article that followed. Sams certainly looks in cracking form: his article Cryptanalysis and Historical Research from Archivaria 21 (1985-1986) casts light on how he decrypted the shorthand used by William Clarke (secretary to Cromwell’s army), the shorthand used by Sir John Thompson (Prime Minister of Canada between 1892 and 1894), etc. He’s got power, reach and stamina, normally an unstoppable combination in this game, as you can also see from his many articles on cryptography at the Centro Studi Eric Sams.

But his opponent tonight, Beatrice V. Gwynn, has many tricks up her fighting sleeves, and perhaps her decades of experience looking at mysteries rather than histories will guide her to victory here. She co-authored a 1977 book on the Phaistos Disc; proposed a theory on the Voynich Manuscript (it’s apparently a hygiene manual written in left-right-mirrored Middle High German, but let’s not hold that against her); and even wrote a book on the evidence used to convict Alger Hiss (“Whittaker Chambers: The Discrepancy in the Evidence of the Typewriter”). Sure, she may not have Sams’ raw cryptanalytical clout, but perhaps she can match him for reach and stamina.

The referee’s in the centre, the seconds have left the ring and… Rrrrrround One begins. The two fighters eye each other up warily over their gloves, waiting to see who will make the first move. And it is Sams who strikes first, whipsmart and sharp as ever:

STARTS: LARKS! IT’S CHAOTIC, BUT A CLOAK OBSCURES MY NEW LETTERS, α, β
BELOW: I OWN THE DARK MAKES
E. E. SIGH WHEN YOU ARE TOO LONG GONE.

Gwynn reels on the ropes, punch-drunk from the sheer interpretativeness of Sams’ claimed decryption. But she quickly collects herself, before launching her own cryptological counter-attack (in her article “The Elgar Cipher”, The Elgar Society Newsletter 1975):-

PINCH FROM TOBACCO
DORA A RIDDLE NOON
SILENT ALONE TIME

Sams is rocked on his heels by the power of the blow (though he must surely be wondering what happened to the rest of the letters – let’s just say it’s a long story). But he soon powers back with what he thinks is a knockout blow – an unpublished 1972 article containing his raw decrypt (i.e. without his wobbly interpretation on top):-

STARTS. LARKS! IT’S EXOTIC BIT A CLOK OBSCURC MY NEW LETTEE
AB BELOW. I OIN THE WARK MAKES E.E. SIGH WHEN E ARE TOO LOMMONT.

Even though Gwynn deftly dodges the wildness of this codebreaking haymaker, Sams has a follow-on jab – pages from Elgar’s archives where he uses the same shapes to encipher “MARCO ELGAR” (the name of his dog), “A VERY OLD CYPHER”, “DO YOU GO TO LONDON?” and “THE GOLD IS BURIED UNDER THE KITCHEN FLOOR” (only kidding!).

marco-elgar-cipher-enhanced

Surprised by the primary evidence, Gwynn drops to her knees on the canvas and gets up again quickly, only to receive a standing count from the referee. As the bell rings for the end of the contest, Sams punches the air in victory and the cheer of “E-ric / E-ric / E-ric” fills the arena air. Gwynn looks desolate: have all her years of effort and striving really been trumped by Sams’ nonsensical-sounding decrypt?

At last the judges pass the result to the referee, who announces it as… A DRAW – neither side managed to land a clean punch. But wait… in all the chaos, a haunting melody starts to fills the room, quieting the crowd. It’s Javier Atance playing his claimed solution (direction 1/2/3/4/5/6/7/8 = do/re/mi/fa/so/la/te/do, 1/2/3 humps = natural / flat / sharp) on a distant organ. But the sound system is quickly unplugged and the pandemonium resumes… in fact, will there ever be an end to it?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

To me, the Dorabella Cipher is a bit like the “Voynich Lite” – even though they both closely resemble simple monoalphabetic ciphers, they both employ one or more tricks that make utter fools of those who seek to break them in a classical kind of way.

Sams was keenly aware of this, and even points out that taking a traditional crypto approach will get you only as far as something like this:-

– B S C – A H C M – N E W L E – E E A B B E L O – O I N T
H E W A H C M – C S E E S A I W H E N E A R T W L O M M O N T
S T A R T S L R – I T S E A R W T I C B I T A C L O C

(or, as Decrypto 8.5 suggests, “TD INVISHE CREE ENT TEROOM HAVECNVISIDEEDNMCVEHEN YACROSSO HAD ANY A DRY MADENY CAMIT MAN IRO I”).

That’s the cryptanalytical mystery: while at the same time, the historical mystery is that Edward Elgar and Dora Penny never spoke of ciphers before or after this. What conceivable rationale would he have had for sending her a near-unbreakable cipher (disguised as a perfectly breakable cipher) in only his third ever letter to her? How can we find a solution to both of these mysteries at the same time?

Despite The Dorabella Cipher‘s brevity, its link to composer Sir Edward Elgar (who wrote it) has brought it a cult following over the years. Like other unbroken ciphers, it has appeared as a mysterious motif in TV plays, novels, and even recently in a children’s book (The Orphan of the Flames).

dorabella-cipher-image

At first sight, it looks to be merely a straightforward simple substitution cipher of the kind that pen, paper, and an agile mind should crack relatively quickly. But what is mystifying is that even though Elgar apparently used precisely the same pigpen-like (3 sets of 8 orientations each) cipher alphabet elsewhere in his writings and notes, the letter-for-symbol replacements he used there make no sense when applied to his Dorabella Cipher. The key seems to match the lock, but doesn’t open the gate.

Moreover, given that the ciphertext’s statistical distribution sits awkwardly with those of natural languages, code-breakers’ numerous attempts to shoehorn their preferred substitutions into the cipher’s three short lines come across as clunky and false (at best). Worst of all, I’m sorry to say that even prolific cipher-solver Tony Gaffney’s ingenious and elegantly-structured decryption failed to please pretty much anyone apart from him.

However, the upside to all that grim cryptanalysis is the indisputable truth that Elgar messed around with language quite a lot, typically in a playful and mischievous way. In general, he loved subverting the rules of language, speech and music, which arguably culminated in his famous Enigma Variations, which some people like to call ‘musical cryptograms’ because many lightly parody (for example) various close friends’ speech and laughter rhythms.

Yet what has long tipped my own judgment against the Dorabella Cipher’s being a cipher of any sort is that by 14th July 1897 (the date of the note), Elgar (who wrote the note) hadn’t known Dora Penny (to whom or for whom the note was written) very long at all; and they never communicated in any kind of cipher before or after that date. But even so, my opinion was no more than a hunch, based only on various modern references on Elgar’s life I’d read… not very satisfactory, but that’s how these things tend to go.

Anyway, having spent far too long reading and relying on secondary sources on this particular cipher mystery, a few weeks ago I decided to instead go right to the source of the story – Dora Penny’s book “Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation” (I bought a copy of the 1946 second edition, which has rather more information about the Enigma Variations than the first edition), written under her married name “Mrs Richard Powell”.

What I read there only served to strengthen my historical argument against The Dorabella Cipher’s being a cipher at all. Elgar and Penny first met on 6th December 1895, and the cipher was only the third letter Elgar ever wrote to Dora (if indeed, as she points out, it is a letter at all). (Also, he only started calling her “Dorabella” in 1898, so there’s a case to be made that its name isn’t chronologically accurate… oh well!) From all I could see, it would defy common sense if he had sent her something written in an deliberately intractable cipher: no matter how much of a fascination he personally had with such things, cryptography of any sort was not a discussion subject the two friends seemed to have shared at all.

And yet what we see does so resemble an enciphered cryptogram, a paradox which ultimately gives it its place at the Cipher Mysteries top table: for it really ought to be a simple cipher, but it surely is not one. And I find it hard not to hear Elgar’s voice saying to Dora Penny exactly what he said to her about the Enigma Variations (one of which is ‘hers’) – that surely she “of all people” would be able to unwrap its central mystery, its hidden themes. Wouldn’t his cipher, too, be steganography – hidden in plain sight?

As to the content of the note, I don’t believe that the newly married Elgar would have sent Dora Penny, for all the fun they had together (going out to the races, seeing Wolverhampton Wanderers, reading maps, flying kites, etc) a love letter. So in all probability, I think that what we are looking at here is a three line note or letter from him to her, in broadly the same joking and playful manner that he adopted in his other letters to her (though probably not as Byzantine in lexicographical complexity as later letters would become), regardless of the particular manner in which that effect is achieved.

The only other clue I have to offer is that in July 1897, the Elgars were living in a house called “Forli” (named after the talented Renaissance painter Melozzo da Forli, who incidentally gets mentioned a few times in Elizabeth Lev’s rather good The Tigress of Forli) in Malvern in Worcestershire. And so I wondered whether “Forli” and/or “Malvern” might be effective as cribs into the cryptogram, for Elgar would typically head even very short notes with his current address (several of which are charmingly reproduced as inserts in Dora Penny’s book). OK, it’s not quite “HEILH ITLER” at the start of Enigma messages, but you gotta work with what you’ve got, right? 🙂

And so with all these fragmentary clues in mind, I stared and stared and stared at the Dorabella Cipher, trying to see what Elgar (mistakenly) thought Dora Penny would see straight away. And then I stared somemore. After a (fairly long) while, here’s what I noticed:-

dorabella-forli-malvern

Essentially, I suspect that Elgar was so certain that Dora Penny would know what he would be saying in a short note that all he felt he needed to do was to write the general form of the words (even presented in the form of a ciphertext-like medium) and she would still be able to ‘read’ them. [Unfortunately, this proved not to be true!] So, I believe that what we are looking at could well be more like Elgar’s improvised steganographic attempt at a mind-reading trick than a traditional ciphertext per se. Such a process would (probably) produce something like what we see: a non-mathematical stegotext that fails to have the kind of rigorous statistical profile that “proper” ciphers would.

I’m the first to admit that it’s far more of a wobbly observation and a loose speculation than a rigorous proof: but what I’m proposing is that the Dorabella Cipher could turn out to be a quite different class of object from that which code-breakers have been trying (unsuccessfully) to crack. It’s not the end of the road here, but it might possibly be the very start of one… hopefully we shall see! 🙂

Does the world need yet more Voynich Manuscript-themes novels? Errrrm… obviously it does, or else why would so many of them be parachuting down out of a clear blue sky?

First up in today’s list is H. L. Dennis’ “Secret Breakers: The Power of Three”. Even though this is a kid’s book, between you and me it’s actually a jolly good read, with lots of Bletchley-Park-Station-X and mint-imperial-crunching-British-code-breaker stuff threaded throughout it, like so much Csjhiupo Spdl. My 8-year-old son enjoyed it so much that he’ll be posting a review of it here soon. All you need to know for now is that the ending sets up book two with Edward Elgar: so, Dorabella here we come! 😉

Next up is Linda Lafferty’s “The Bloodletter’s Daughter” – this 480-page heft weaves the Voynich Manuscript’s threads in with the even more obscure (and, actually, far bloodier) story of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II’s mad son Don Julius. There’s a copy right beside my desk waiting to be read… I just wish I didn’t have so much actual cipher research to do at the moment. But I promise I’ll get there (eventually)… oh well!

Finally, R. J. Scott’s “Book Of Secrets – Oracle 2” is due for release at the end of the month, though I get the feeling that it may not make a lot of sense unless you’ve already read the first book (“Oracle”).

Enjoy! @-) <--- belated Wenlock smiley 😉

Here’s a nice little thing that might possibly earn a Cipher Mysteries reader 100 US$!

Once upon a time in Copenhagen, a bright mathematics professor called Julius Petersen briefly stepped into the world of codes and ciphers. He wrote and published a pamphlet on cryptography called Système cryptographique, as well as a series of eight fortnightly articles on the subject for the weekly magazine NÆR OG FJERN (‘NEAR AND FAR AWAY’) – these ran from issue 150 (16 May 1875) to issue 164 (22 August 1875).

Though the articles did not actually say Petersen had written them, they are very much à la main de Petersen: and according to Professor Bjarne Toft, “we know from other sources that [Petersen] was the author (or one of the authors)“.

The point of interest for us is that the author(s) signed his / their name(s) in this unusual encrypted fashion:-

By 46, 9, 4-57, 3, 5.

This has left Bjarne Toft so mystified that he has offered money to anyone who can crack it:-

Does the dash ‘-‘ indicate that there are two authors? If so, the other could be Frederik Bing, who was an extremely good mathematician and a close friend of Petersen. Bing was mathematical director in the state life insurance company. And are the numbers dates? Or what??

I have offered a prize of 100 US$ to anyone who can give a convincing solution (convincing for me that means!).

Here are some things that might possibly help you crack such a tiny cryptogram (even smaller than the Dorabella Cipher!):

  • Petersen’s full name was “Julius Peter Christian Petersen”, so his initials were presumably JPCP;
  • Petersen’s friend’s full name was “Frederik Moritz Bing”, so his initials were FMB;
  • The cryptogram looks an awful lot like a tiny book cipher (along the lines of the Beale Papers);
  • If it is a book code, no obvious attempt has been made to use high numbers;
  • If it is a book code, common letters would presumably tend to appear as smaller numbers, less common letters slightly larger numbers, with extremely rare letters potentially very large numbers: so the pattern here would seem to be “rare common common dash rare common common“;
  • Surely the number one candidate book for testing the “book code” hypothesis would be Petersen’s Système cryptographique. Yet Worldcat lists no copies in the UK, so it would be down to someone to have a look at one of the scant few copies owned elsewhere…

Over to you, armchair cryptogram detectives…

Just a quick note to say that I’ve been working behind the scenes for a few weeks on a revised Cipher Mysteries home page, incorporating a nice clickable list of what I think are the top unsolved cipher mysteries of all time, some of which you may not have heard of:-

  1. (–Top secret, yet to be announced–)
  2. The Voynich Manuscript
  3. The Anthon Transcript
  4. The Beale Papers
  5. The Rohonc Codex
  6. The HMAS Sydney Ciphers
  7. The Tamam Shud Cipher
  8. The D’Agapeyeff Cipher
  9. The Codex Seraphinianus
  10. The Dorabella Cipher
  11. The Phaistos Disk

Note that the HMAS Sydney Ciphers part isn’t yet live, because I haven’t written the post yet (probably later this week). 🙂  I may update the list later to insert the Vinland Map at #7, but that’s another story entirely…

Incidentally, the reason I ranked the Voynich Manuscript at #2 is because the top spot will be filled (hopefully fairly soon) with an awesome centuries-old cipher mystery I’ve been chipping away at for a while, one that will be eerily familiar to many CM readers. Don’t hold your breath, but I do think you’re going to like it a lot… 🙂

With my book publisher hat on, I’d guess that the pitch for this book probably said: “Codes! Ciphers! Cryptograms! Masonic stuff! For Dummies!” And yes, the authors (Denise Sutherland and Mark E. Koltko-Rivera) pretty much seem to have delivered on that basic promise. But… is it any good?

Bear with me while I sketch out a triangle in idea-space. On the first vertex, I’ll put recreational code-breakers – the Sunday supplement sudoku crowd. On the second vertex, hardcore cipher history buffs – David Kahn groupies. On the last vertex, historical mystery / conspiracy fans – Templars, Masons, Turin Shroud, HBHG, Voynich Manuscript etc.

“Cracking Codes & Cryptograms for Dummies” sits firmly on the triangle’s first vertex, but I have to reaches out only fairly lamely (I think) to the other two vertices. Structurally, its innovation is to tell three stories where you need to solve a long sequence (100, 80, and 55 respectively) of individual cryptograms to find out what happened. Quite a few of the ciphers use well-known cipher alphabets, such as Malachim, Enochian, and various Masonic pigpens: there are also a few trendy puzzle ciphers (such as predictive texting ciphers formed just of numbers).

Compare this to its big competitor (Elonka Dunin’s “Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms”) which sits on the same first vertex. Elonka’s book has quite a few more puzzles, is structured both thematically and by ascending difficulty, and sticks to plaintext: it also has a 40-page section on unsolved ciphers (the VMs, the Dorabella Cipher, Phaistos Disk, etc), but with no real pretense at trying to precis Kahn’s “The Codebreakers”.

For me, Cipher Mysteries sits on the opposite edge of the triangle (i.e. between hardcore cipher history and, errm, softcore cipher mysteries) to both of these, so I’m probably not the right person to judge which of the two puzzle books is better. Elonka’s book is easy to work your way through (but feels a bit more old-fashioned): while Sutherland & Koltko-Rivera’s book is lithe and up-to-the-minute (but feels less substantial, in almost every sense). OK, the first is more cryptologic, the second more puzzle-y: but ultimately they’re doing the same thing and talking to the same basic audience.

Really, I guess puzzle book buyers would do well to buy both and make up their own mind which of the two they prefer: but sadly I have to say that most Cipher Mysteries readers might prefer to buy neither. But you never know!