A few years ago, while giving a talk at Westminster Under School on the WW2 pigeon cipher, I mentioned that (a) Typex messages were sent in groups of five letters; and (b) when some German codebreakers looked at intercepted Typex messages early on in the war, they noticed that the last letter of each cryptogram was almost never X.

I then asked the Westminster boys what the Germans inferred from this (which was actually an incredibly subtle and difficult question). I was thoroughly delighted when a quiet high voice at the back suggested that the Germans could have concluded that they were looking at an Enigma-class machine encryption, where the last letter group was padded out with Xs.

Indeed, our young future head of GCHQ was right: the space bar on the Typex keyboard was attached to the X key, and operators typically used spaces (i.e. Xs) to pad out the final message group to a multiple of five letters.

Separately, German codebreaker Otto Buggisch also noticed early on in the war that the first three letters of RAF Typex messages were almost never A, I, and R respectively: though Buggisch deemed his obervation to have “no practical significance”.

All the same, this is a good example of bad enciphering practice (because stereotyped contents such as HEILHITLER or KEINEBESONDERENEREIGNISSE leave all cipher systems exposed), and goes to show that Britain started the war with cipher practices that were essentially no better or worse than Germany’s.

Yet if we have a look at the secret history of the QQQQQ group as used in Typex messages, we find something that might help us to (eventually) reveal the contents of a well-known cipher mystery…

The British Navy and Typex

ADM 1-27186 tells us in good detail how Typex cipher practice changed in the British Navy through the war years.

The Navy started with the same set of five black rotors used by the Army: the machine setting keys specified which drums to use, and were initially constant for a week, but on 2nd September 1940 were changed every day. A further two red rotors were added on 1st June 1941, giving a choice of seven rotors.

At first, the per-message drum settings were chosen at random by the operator and “the actual initial setting of the drums was transmitted as the first and last groups of the message or message section”. “Message sections were limited, for security reasons, to 60-70 groups, after which a new message section was chosen. Sections were separated by groups of five Q’s.”

Hence the first appearance of QQQQQ in Naval Typex messages was as a plaintext separator between message sections. That is, a typical long message would look as follows, where ABCDE was the (raw) indicator of the first message section and LMNOP was the (raw) indicator of the second message section:

ABCDE ….. [60+ groups] ….. ABCDE QQQQQ LMNOP ….. [more groups] ….. LMNOP

Buggisch also recalled that some Typex-related documents found at Dunkirk (along with a rotor-less Typex machine, and perhaps a reflector) mentioned “an English cipher security officer point[ing] out that he has noticed frequent breaches of the strict regulation that wheels should be turned on at random after a message has been enciphered”.

On 1st November 1941, however, Navy operators’ freedom to choose their own settings was curtailed, and books of disguised message settings were introduced in the Navy: at the same time, the practice of using QQQQQ as a section separator ceased.

After 1st March 1942, the optional use of Typex plugboards was indicated by FIELD at the start of messages.

1st February 1943 saw the introduction of two sets of seven new rotors wired specifically for the Navy, called “Code X” (for normal secure traffic) and “Cypher X” (for more secure traffic with plugboards), and where the original seven drums were still used for Inter-service traffic. Then:

On the 29th December, 1943, following a further review of Typex security, which amongst other things showed this system was particularly vulnerable to cryptographic attack from stereotyped beginnings, a revised procedure for concealing the start of the text was brought into force. From this date, the first ten to fifteen words of the subject matter were buried in the text, in addition to the address.

A new (and somewhat cumbersome) doubly-enciphered message setting procedure was introduced on 1st February 1944: but this was broadly balanced out by extra latitude when dealing with multiple message sections. Now “message sections were once again distinguished by the self-evidence group of five Q’s with the added proviso, however, that after each such group the right hand drum must be rotated one place before encyphering was continued.”


In April 1944, the cyclic procedure was introduced as a security measure in the cyphering of short messages which, by reason of their brevity, were unsuited to the “buried address” procedure.

I don’t know what “the cyclic procedure” was, all suggestions gratefully received. 🙂

The British Army and Typex

Christos has a good page on the Typex, with scans of HW 40/89: ‘Typex questionnaire’:

From this, we know that at the very start of the war, each Typex rotor contained 14 “large” letters (of 26), where operator-set random settings could only use these large letters: but this restriction disappeared in mid-1940.

Codress burying (i.e. concealed coded addresses) was introduced on 1st January 1941, while disguised message settings were introduced on 19th May 1941, some six months before the Navy did the same.

A letter-shift procedure was introduced on 1st Feb 1944, and a figure/letter shift procedure on 1st September 1944: these were introduced in the Navy on the same dates.

The Royal Air Force and Typex

It was the RAF who invented Typex: but the amount of RAF-related Typex information I have found is quite small.

However, Stuart Rutter once posted some scans (now only in the Wayback Machine) from the February 1943 user manual for the (mostly) portable Typex Mk VI (which is what I suspect was used in the field for the Pigeon Cipher):

Preparation of message for transmission – Withdraw and detach the tape from the message printer and insert in manuscript, as the first group, the disguised message setting used at the commencement of the message. If the message is complete in one section write this disguised message setting and groups of five Q’s must be inserted appropriately in the spaces left for that purpose. Each section must begin and end with the disguised message setting, in manuscript, appropriate to it. The tape should then be gummed to a message form so that there are ten groups in each line. This is done in order to facilitate the counting of the total number of groups.

It’s not as clear as in the other cases how the QQQQQ section should be used, but it’s there nonetheless.

Can Love Conquer All?

Dufty recounts (chapter 43) a charming “cryptological love story” about two lovelorn Typex operators separated by General McArthur’s push North, who would occasionally hide messages to each other at the start of Typex messages.

The way they had been trained to use Typex was to write some filler nonsense text at the start (presumably the “ten to fifteen words” mentioned in the Navy account), followed by an (enciphered) QQQQQ separator, followed by the address and finally the actual message contents. Because the filler text was stripped out of the message at the far end before being passed onwards, the operators had just enough latitude to insert their own messages.

Incidentally, it’s not clear to me whether this QQQQQ was always added at a five-letter boundary or whether it could appear at any position: I strongly suspect the former, so it could prove valuable to find out from any still-living Typex operators if this is correct. (Perhaps I’ll ask David Dufty if he would be so kind as to ask one of the Australian Typex operators he interviewed.)

The reason this might be interesting to us is that if (as has seemed reasonably likely to me for some time) the Pigeon Cipher was sent on D-Day (6th June 1944), their Australian love messages in the margins were being sent at about the same time.

And so it may well be that the Pigeon Cipher’s internal structure includes a short filler section and a (plaintext) QQQQQ block, followed by a single extra step on the rightmost rotor: and only then the actual message.

Cryptanalyzing QQQQQ?

The introduction of a filler header plus a QQQQQ separator to Typex messages certainly had the effect of hiding stereotyped beginnings, which was a positive lesson learned from attacking Enigma.

Yet had German cryptanalysts had a reflector and a set of Typex rotors to work with (which they very nearly did on a number of occasions, most notably in Dunkirk and in Tobruk, and there was even a “North African Story” that claimed that they did), could they have exploited (later in the war) the presence of plaintext QQQQQ to crack messages, perhaps with some Bombe-like machine assistance?

Kelly Chang’s (2012) dissertation on the cryptanalysis of Typex is silent on this: Chang treats Typex messages as if they were flat, uniform text messages (i.e. ‘pure’ Typex), which – as we can see from all the above – they were often not.

So, if a Typex message contains plaintext QQQQQ, where would it be? A first trick is to note that because we also know that Q cannot encipher to itself on both Enigma and Typex machines, we need not search for QQQQQ anywhere in a Typex message where Q appears: that is, we can sometimes see where QQQQQ isn’t. And if it turns out that the practice was to only place QQQQQ on five-letter boundaries in the plaintext, we need not check any ciphertext block containing a Q.

Furthermore, given a day’s collection of intercepted Typex messages (which would all have the same rotors selected), a German codebreaker could select the message with the most (random) instances of Q in the top part of the message, so as to sharply reduce the number of places to brute-force search for QQQQQ (because each Q instance in the ciphertext would ‘knock out’ itself and four preceding positions to check).

Curiously, in the case of the Pigeon Cipher, if we colour blue the five-letter indicator groups at the start and end, and colour red all the instances of the letter Q…

…you immediately notice that the third line (“PABUZ WYYNP …..”) contains no letter Q instances at all. This may just be a coincidence, of course: but I personally would be unsurprised if that line turned out to contain QQQQQ in the plaintext somewhere.

If this is right, do we now have enough to break the Pigeon Cipher? I’m not yet sure: but I suspect we’re starting to move closer to a position where we can reduce the search space by millions (if not billions) of times. And at some point, perhaps we’ll have reduced it enough to be able to sensibly set a search in motion… we shall see, fingers crossed!

Australian writer David Dufty’s just-released (2017) “The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau” attempts to be two things at once: a hard-nosed revisionist cryptologic history of the Second World War in the Pacific, and a disarmingly charming series of Australian vignettes glimpsing behind the Ultra curtain.

Central Bureau

Central Bureau was the (deliberately anonymous-sounding) name given to a large part of Australia’s WW2 code-breaking apparatus: yet as the war dragged on, the politicking and turf wars caused an enormous amount of fragmentation.

Dufty tries to treat this deftly, but the networks of internal intrigue and alliances read too much like subtly broken org charts to make sense as mere words on a page. (Some diagrams would be a helpful addition for the paperback release, in my opinion.)

Japanese Navy codes, Army codes, Water Transport codes, ground-to-air codes, sea-to-air codes: all of these were tackled and defeated. Yet even though the theoretical structure and nature of some were worked out early on (e.g. JN-25 by John Tiltman), the codes themselves and the additive tables used to scramble them were subject to change. So the practical cryptologic work never ended, right up to the end of the War.

What is clear throughout Dufty’s book is that historians (OK, mostly American historians) have to date failed to present a balanced picture including Australian cryptological contributions to the war in the Pacific. Sadly, this imbalance was further hindered by the hostile attitude of many Australians (particularly politicians) to non-operational veterans in the post-war period.

I’m pleased to say that Dufty’s historical research and grasp of the realpolitik going on (particularly between the USA and Australia) rings much truer than other accounts I have read: the tricky balance between being aware of Ultra information and acting upon that same information is a leitmotif that runs through his narrative.

Star Rating

As an historical account of practical code-breaking under fire, then, the book gets a 4-star Cipher Mysteries rating: had it not got caught in the shifting sands of the multiple code-breaking organizations and agendas in the first half of the book, it might even have got to 4.5 stars.

But if your interests aren’t as, well, “code-breakery” as mine, and you’re happy to skim the chapters where the narrative gets a little bogged down in the details, there’s a lot of human interest – and yes, even cryptological love-stories in the margins of TypeX messages – to be had.

In short, it’s also a pretty good summer read (in Kindle format, because the hardback is too pricey for most budgets, and there is no softback edition as yet), though perhaps only for those who already know their substitution from their transposition. :-/

An interesting-sounding document referred to by Alfred Martin in 1906 (pp.174-175, thanks to Stefan Mathys!) is Cod. Sang. 760, the contents of which the St Gallen archivists describe as follows:

This manuscript, illustrated with numerous colored pen drawings, originated in a secular environment in Southern Germany or in Switzerland around the middle of the 15th century. It describes the signs of the zodiac, the planets, the four temperaments, and the four seasons regarding their influence on human health. This is followed by dietary guidelines primarily regarding bloodletting, but also regarding eating, drinking, sleeping, waking, resting and moving, as well as, in concrete terms, regarding bathing (illustration p. 101) or defecating (illustration p. 120)

As to the manuscript’s origins, the archivists suggest:

Most likely an amateur doctor with an interest in astronomy, from the Southern region of Germany, wrote the original text around 1400 and assembled it into a compendium. Later the text was repeatedly supplemented and modified.

There are numerous reasons why I’m intrigued by Cod. Sang. 760: not only its zodiac roundels, but also the sun-moon roundels on adjacent pages, and the textual focus on all the things I’ve recently been wondering whether the Voynich zodiac pages encode – blood-letting, baths, clysters (enemas), etc.

“Iatromathematisches Hausbuch” manuscripts

Yet Cod. Sang. 760 (which was only digitized in 2014) is but one of a series of “Iatromathematisches Hausbuch” manuscripts, some of which were discussed on Stephen Bax’s site https://stephenbax.net/?p=1211 back in 2015, e.g.:

* Cod. Pal. Germ. 291

* Cod. Pal. Germ. 557

…and so forth. The 30-element list of Saint’s Days that appear on twelve pages at the start of these also appear in other manuscripts, perhaps most notably this one from Konstanz in 1463 (as mentioned by Rene):

* Planeten-Buch – BSB Cgm 7269, Konstanz, Anfang 15. Jh. bis 17. Jh. [BSB-Hss Cgm 7269]

What is interesting in CGM 7269 is that not only does the Sagittarius crossbowman appear, but also the image of two people in a bath (previously used to illustrate bathing) has been appropriated for the Gemini zodiac sign.

(There’s also Tübingen Md 2, MS Cod Sang 827, and Strasbourg Ms.2.120 to consider, etc.)

I could go on, but I hope the basic point – that we are looking at a family of manuscripts with many similar features – is clear.

The copied crossbowman hypothesis

I’m acutely aware that what follows is less of an outright answer than a provocation towards approaching an answer.

The first step is hypothesizing the origins of the Sagittarius crossbowman: I now feel quite sure that it was a copying error within the basic Iatromathematisches Hausbuch manuscript family, where a crossbowman roundel originally drawn to accompany the constellation Sagittarius was miscopied into the zodiac roundel accompanying the zodiac sign Sagittarius.

This is hardly a huge departure from what has been noted before, specifically when Rafal Prinke and Rene Zandbergen asked Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and Prof. Dieter Blume (respectively) about this.

However, by positing the crossbowman drawing as a copying error, we can start to view the Voynich Manuscript’s zodiac section not just as something visually influenced by a set of manuscripts, but as a member of the cladistic tree of a specific family of manuscripts.

The iatromathematical table/label hypothesis

Structurally, these iatromathematical housebooks have quite stylized layouts and contents. For example, they typically start with a nineteen-column computus table (which was no secret at all), followed by a set of twelve tables of Saint’s Days (I believe), with 30 elements in each list.

In the Planeten-Buch, these lists have further become associated with zodiac signs, in much the same way that we see in the Voynich Manuscript (albeit in a non-obvious way).

It would therefore seem reasonable to secondly hypothesize that the contents of these tables might have (in some way) ended up as the Voynich zodiac labels (e.g. using some combination of abbreviation and acrostic), i.e. from tables to labels.

Incidentally, this would be the kind of “block paradigm” match I’ve talked about for some time here. The reason I think it is of particular cryptographic interest is that there is good cryptanalytical reason to suspect that the Voynich’s “labelese” (i.e. the version of the text used to write labels) is only a subset of the ‘language(s)’ used to write the main text. As such, labelese may well be weaker and hence easier to break.

Where next?

So far, I have only looked at a handful of manuscripts, and from these have elicited only the outline of a research angle.

But the real historical heavy lifting – building a complete list of these fifteenth century manuscripts, and then deriving a cladistic tree linking them all together – must have been done already, surely?

Can I therefore again ask my German-speaking readers for their help, this time to dig up any literature looking at this family of manuscripts as a whole?

I’m sure it’s out there, but I haven’t yet found it. All pointers, tips and suggestions gratefully received! 🙂

The Voynich Manuscript’s zodiac roundel section has long frustrated researchers’ efforts to make sense of it at a high level, never mind determining what any specific zodiac nymph’s label means.

However, I can now see the outline of a new hypothesis that might explain what we’re seeing here…

A Stylistic Impasse?

The fact that each zodiac sign has thirty nymphs, thirty stars and thirty labels (all bar one?) would seem to be a good indication that some kind of per-degree astrology is going on here: and this is a lead I have pursued for many years.

The literature on this, from Pietro d’Abano to Andalo di Negro to (the as yet unseen) Volasfera, is uniformly Italian: so it would seem a relatively safe bet that the source of this section is also from that same Italian document tree.

At the same time, the observation that the drawings in the zodiac roundels are stylistically quite distinct from the rest of the Voynich Manuscript’s drawings has been made many times.

Combine this with the fourteenth century technological dating for the (unusual) Sagittarius crossbow, and you get loosely driven towards a working hypothesis that at least the central figures were copied from a (still unknown) late 14th century or early 15th century woodcut almanach, of the type that was most commonly found in Germany and Switzerland.

However, this leads to an awkward stylistic impasse: how can this zodiac section be both Italian and German at the same time?

Klebs and Martin

Back in 2009, I mentioned Arnold Klebs’ very interesting 1916 article on the history of balneology in the context of discussing Quire 13. However, there was another intriguing quote there that I only got round to chasing up a few days ago:

The yearly pilgrimages to the healing springs in the month of May, the baths of the women on St. John’s Day, which Petrarca describes so picturesquely in one of his letters from Cologne, were ancient survivals, indications of a deeply rooted love for and belief in the purifying powers of the liquid element. These seasonal wanderings to the healing springs were naturally brought into relation with astral conjunctions, a tendency soon exploited by the calendar makers and astrological physicians. Days and hours were set for bathing, blood-letting, cupping, and purging, carefully ascertained by the position of the stars. Martin in his book gives a great variety of such instances which offer interest from many points of view.

The author and book to whom Klebs is referring here is Alfred Martin and his immense (1906) “Deutsches Badewesen in vergangenen Tagen“, Jena : Diederichs. (The link is to archive.org .)

It turns out that Klebs sourced a great deal of his article from Martin’s labour of love (with its 159 illustrations and its 700-entry bibliography), which covers public baths, private baths, Jewish baths, bath-related legislation, mineral baths, bath architecture, bath technology, spas, saunas, and so forth, ranging from Roman times all the way up to 1900, and with a dominant focus on German and Swiss archival sources.

The Zodiac Bath Hypothesis

You can by now surely see where I’m heading with this: a zodiac bath hypothesis, where the Voynich’s zodiac section was in some way a copy of a German/Swiss original, which itself brought together the two traditions of per-degree astrology and good/bad times for “bathing, blood-letting, cupping, and purging” (as described by Klebs).

In some ways, this should be no surprise to anyone, given that the first few nymphs are all sitting in barrels, which were essentially what medieval private baths were (well, half-barrels, anyway).

And perhaps, in the context of clysters (enemas), it’s not inviting too much trouble to speculate what legs drawn apart / together might be representing. 🙂

The problem is that – probably because of my only fragmentary German – I can’t find any mention of “Days and hours were set for bathing, blood-letting, cupping, and purging, carefully ascertained by the position of the stars” in Martin’s German text.

I can see plenty of references to blood-letting (“aderlass”) etc, but pinning down the exact part that Klebs robbed out has proved to be beyond me.

Can I therefore please ask a favour of (one or more of) my German readers; which is simply to find the section in Alfred Martin’s book to which Krebs was referring? Thanks! 🙂

It would seem likely that this will then refer to a book in Martin’s capacious bibliography, at which point the game is (hopefully) afoot!

Having now reread Ian Pfennigwerth’s “Man of Intelligence” and gone through various files at the NAA, I now have slightly more solid dates framing what Captain Nave was doing in 1949.

Nave’s Career

Having started work in the South Australian Railways (where his father Thomas worked), Eric Nave signed up for the Royal Australian Navy in 1917. He stayed there until 1930, when he was moved to the Royal Navy.

However, Nave’s RN personnel file is not only fairly brief (he was cheerful and intelligent), but only runs to 1948.

A large proportion of the papers in his NAA ASIO file relate to his pension, because his Royal Navy pension was not transferable to his wife. Because the Naves had four children, this issue required a fair bit of administrative attention. Redactions are merely senior officers’ names.

I incidentally found out that Nave owned a Holden sedan, and that his parents lived at 5b Arlington Terrace, Allenby Gardens, Adelaide.

Captain Nave’s 1949 Timeline

From the papers in the files, we can say definitively that Captain Nave: [page numbers from the ASIO file NAA: A6119, 3576]

* finished formal work with the RN in March 1949 (p.80)

* was allocated to the Terror “18.3.49 for dispersal” (Navy service record)

* had 160 days of untaken / carried over holiday (Pfennigwerth), though the Navy service record says “48 days N.S.L.  28 days E.O.W.L.  56 days release + RAN F.S.L.”

* was courted by ASIO as early as 13th May 1949 (p.87)

* officially retired on 22nd August 1949   (when his pension started) (pp.30-31)

* started with ASIO on 20th October 1949  (pp.30-31)

All of which means that Adelaide-born-and-bred Captain Nave was still (technically) in the Royal Navy in July 1949, when the Adelaide newspapers reported that a “local Navy decoder” was having a look at the Rubaiyat.

Are any of his children still alive?

The notion that Jorge Luis Borges’ “Labyrinths” – a collection of idiosyncratic short stories, essays, and even parables by the much-acclaimed Argentinian writer, wrangled into English with no little hair-pulling – somehow parallels Voynich research is one that has been floated and repeated for decades.

But is it true now, here in the Fake News world of 2017? Is Borges a harbinger of what we see, or are we all post-Borges?

Describing The Indescribable

What Borges does in his short stories is to gleefully plunder history, not for mere colour (as so many writers now do) but to subvert it and channel it into a secret paradoxical alt.history, which typically forms the conceptual spine of each story’s skeleton.

The twisted steps backwards he takes to go forward again are equal parts erudite and imaginary. These all lead to a creative pyre whose flames are fed by philosophy, religion, esotericism, literature, self-referentiality, dreams, chess, labyrinths, and the numberless ways to cheat (or at least sidestep) the infinities of time, space, and mathematics.

Yet despite the range of references, the setting is predominantly a high-register, sexless, atheistic domain, ruled by stern, darkly logical planets. As a reader, you often feel as though the author is trying to conjure up a paradoxical exit visa from one dark oppressive reality into another.

Borges’ Three Tells

It’s not hard to tell his writing apart from just about anybody else’s.

His first writing trademark is embellished and over-decorated footnotes and references to books and articles which may or may not exist, embedding (if not actually entangling) his narratives in an imaginary textual web. This corresponds to the “falsifying and magnifying” tendency he derides himself (at a remove) for.

His second trademark is inserting himself into his stories, often as an unreliable narrator (not such a modern conceit as some may think).

His third trademark is that his stories almost always reveal themselves to be less than the sum of their parts – the denouement is often little more than a peek behind Oz’s curtain, collapsing the conceit preceding it.

Is Borges Worth Reading?

This is a tough question. Many of the things that are good about his writing would also likely make him completely unreadable to many modern readers. If you are impatient and/or prefer things to be grounded in the concrete, Borges’ concept-heavy counter-factuals are almost certainly not for you.

Yet the bigger problem, I think, is one of style, because Borges writes with a kind of refined, over-polished lightness that somehow never quite becomes levity. I don’t believe that the reading difficulties are translation artefacts: they’d be just as difficult in Hawaiian or Esperanto.

Is Borges a fellow-traveller to Voynich researchers? He certainly sets his readers cerebral challenges, ones which wear cloaks of obscurity, esotericism, and a tight knowingness, yet which he then reveals to be simpler than they at first seemed: and in some ways this is the (idealized) research trajectory.

But in the end, I think the answer is no: his mystification and erudition aren’t his means to knowledge, they are merely the scaffolding he uses to support the canvas behind his all-too-briefly-erected stages. Borges offers only an anagram of research, not research itself: the teasing paranoia of conspiracy, rather than causality.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Borges: but, like fried grasshoppers dipped in Marmite, I can quite see he’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes. :-/

In July 1949, Australia’s greatest code-breaker Captain Eric Nave was enjoying his 160 days of accumulated holidays before starting a new job with (the newly formed) ASIO on 15th December 1949. I suspect he was at his house in Adelaide Melbourne at the time, but asked over by his father in Adelaide, where he had lived until early on in the war.

Hence I strongly believe that the “local naval decoder” referred to in reference #4 below was Eric Nave. I would be delighted if anybody has suggestions as to how this could be tested or pursued further in the archives.

(1) The Adelaide Advertiser, 26th July 1949, p.3

Yesterday the police interviewed two suburban telephone subscribers whose numbers corresponded with those on the back of the book, but they knew nothing of the matter.

(2) Adelaide News, 26th July 1949, p.1

Phone number found on cover of book

[…]The woman whose telephone number appears in pencil on the cover of the book told police that when she was nursing at North Shore hospital in Sydney about three and a half years ago, she gave a similar copy to a lieutenant who served in the Water Transport section of the Army.

Later, she said, the lieutenant wrote to her mother’s home in Melbourne. She replied to his letter, telling him she was married.
Subsequently, the woman told police, she and her husband settled in Adelaide. Last year a man called at the house of a neighbor, inquiring for a nurse he once knew.

This afternoon the woman is being shown the plaster cast of the Somerton victim, which is now in a storeroom at Adelaide Museum.

Acting on the possibility that the “Rubalyat” in their possession did belong to the lieutenant, police set out to decipher a number of block letters pencilled on the back of the book.

Although the lettering was faint, police managed to read it by using ultra-violet light. In the belief that the lettering might be a code, a copy has been sent to decoding experts at Army Headquarters, Melbourne.

(3a) The Adelaide Advertiser, 27th July 1949, p.1

Army Officer Sought To Help Solve Somerton Body Case

[…]The police have also forwarded to Army Headquarters, Melbourne, a copy of a series of letters printed in pencil on the back of the book. They believe that it is possible that the letters may be some coded message. Police located the woman from a telephone number, also written in pencil on the back the book.[…]

(3b) Adelaide News, 27th July 1949, p.1

Yesterday police traced a telephone number pencilled on the cover to the Adelaide woman who gave a similar copy of the book to the Army lieutenant.

Efforts to decipher several rows of block letters, believed to be a code, on the back of the book are continuing. A Navy “code cracker”, is tackling the task this afternoon.

(4) Adelaide News, 25th August 1949, p.22


Police were told today that Australia’s top cipher experts had failed to crack the code in the back of a copy of Omar Khayyam’s “Rubaiyat’ believed to be connected with the Somerton body mystery.

A naval spokesman said experts in Melbourne had worked on the code for weeks. Melbourne authorities had informed him that the frequency of the occurrence of letters, while inconclusive, corresponded more favorably with the table of frequencies of initial letters of words in English than with any other table.

A reasonable explanation would be that the lines were initial letters of words of a verse of poetry or something like that.

Before a copy of the code was sent to Melbourne, a local naval decoder expressed similar views.

The code, printed in pencil in the back of a copy of the “Rubaiyat” from which the words “Tamam Shud” – meaning “The End” – were torn, was thrown into the back of an unattended car at Glenelg about the time the body of an unknown man was found on Somerton beach on December 1, 1948. In the clothing on the body was a neatly trimmed piece of paper with the words “Tamam Shud.”

(5) Adelaide News, 27th August 1949, p.2

Many try to solve Somerton code

[…]Expert opinion is that the code was made up of initial
letters of words from a verse of poetry or something similar.

The code is:
M R G O A D A B D [sic]

Vic. man’s claim

Melbourne. – A former newspaper seller, Mr. Ernest Jessup, of Caulfield, thinks he may have solved part of the code.
This is how he worked it out:
MRGOADABD [sic] – Mr. Goddard
MTBIMPANETP – Pantryman(?).
MLIABOAIAQC – Mail-boat-AQC (AQC, A class quarters?)
Mr. Jessup believes this hides the name of a ship – his guess is an Indian ship.

Here’s something a little unusual for you all – a feature-length 1971 episode of a Sci-Fi series called “Name of the Game” on YouTube, and set in “A.D. 2017” (also the name of the episode):

Interestingly, the director was a young Stephen Spielberg (it was one of his earliest pieces of work); while its author was American writer Philip Wylie, whose career moved from screenplays to slushy novels to non-fiction to dystopian fiction (and then dotted around between them for several decades).

But more about Wylie (and his connection to a cipher mystery) in a separate post. For now, on with the show! Enjoy! 🙂


You might instead ask: “Was the author of the Voynich Manuscript a nymphomaniac lesbian from Baden Baden obsessed with clysters?”

Or how about: “Was the author of the Voynich Manuscript a medieval psychoactive drugs harvester from (the place now known as) Milton Keynes?”

Or: “Was the author of the Voynich Manuscript a Somalian Humiliatus obsessed with mis-shapen vegetables starting with the letter ‘A’, writing down the results of a six-year-long trek through the Amazon rainforest in a perversely private language?”

The answers to these are, errrm, no, no, and no (respectively).

When the Voynich Manuscript contains so many unexplained points of data (a thousand? Ten thousand?), why on earth should I or anyone else spend more than a minimal amount of time evaluating a Voynich theory that seems to attempt to join together just two of them with what can only be described as the flimsiest of thread?

What – a – waste – of – time – that – would – be.

I’ve just uploaded a draft paper to academia.edu called Fifteenth Century Cryptography Revisited. This takes a fresh look at the topic (specifically at homophonic ciphers, Simonetta, and Alberti), and takes a view quite different from David Kahn’s (now 50-year-old) interpretation.

Please take a look: I don’t yet know where it will end up (i.e. as a book chapter, a journal article, or whatever), but I thought it would be good to push the current version up, see what people think.

The abstract runs as follows:

Fifteenth Century Cryptography Revisited

In the fifteenth century, the art of secret writing was dramatically transformed. The simple ciphers typical of the preceding century were rapidly replaced by complicated cipher systems built from nulls, nomenclators, homophones and many other tricks.

Homophones – where individual plaintext letters were enciphered by one of a set of different shapes – were, according to David Kahn’s influential interpretation, added specifically to defend against frequency analysis attacks. Kahn interprets this as a sign of the emergence of cryptanalysis, possibly from Arab sources, and also of the growing mathematization and professionalism of cryptology.

However, by closely examining key ciphers and cipher-related texts of this period, this paper instead argues that homophones were instead added as a steganographic defence. That is, the intention was specifically to disguise linguistic weaknesses in Italian and Latin plaintexts that rendered ciphertexts vulnerable to easy decryption.

Building on this analysis, a new account of the history of fifteenth century cryptography is proposed, along with a revised model charting the flow of ideas influencing cryptographic practice during this fascinating period.

Though it runs to eighteen pages, it should be easy to pick up and read. Please let me know if there’s anything that you think needs clarification, or which you think is incorrect etc.