I’m getting a bit cheesed off with the Internet: every time I do a search for anything Cipher Mysteries-ish, it seems that half Google’s hits are for ghastly sites listing “Top 10 Unsolved Mysteries” or “10 Most Bizarre Uncracked Codes“. Still, perhaps I should be more grateful to the GooglePlex that I’m not getting “Top 10 Paris Hilton Modesty Tips” and its tawdry ilk.

Realistically, there is only one uncracked code/cipher listing on the web from which all the rest get cut-and-pasted: Elonka’s list of famous unsolved codes and ciphers. But Elonka Dunin has long since moved on (coincidentally, she went from cryptography into computer game production at about the same time that I made the reverse journey), which is perhaps why all of these lists look a bit dated. Perhaps I should do my own list soon (maybe, if I had the time).

Happily, Elonka did manage to nail most of the usual suspects: the Beale Papers, the Voynich Manuscript, Dorabella, Zodiac Killer, d’Agapeyeff, Phaistos Disk, and so on… each typically a piece of ciphertext which we would like to decipher in order to crack a historical mystery. However, one of the items on her list stands out as something of an exception.

For John F. Byrne’s 1918 “Chaocipher”, we have a description of his device (the prototype fitted in a cigar box, and allegedly contained two wheels with scrambled letters), and a fair few examples of both Chaocipher ciphertext and the matching plaintext. So, the mystery isn’t so much a whodunnit as a howdunnit. Though a small number of people are in on the secret mechanism (Lou Kruh, for one), Byrne himself is long dead: and the details of how his box of tricks worked have never been released into the public domain.

Was Byrne’s Chaocipher truly as unbreakable as he believed, or was it no more than the grand delusion of an inspired cryptographic outsider? This, really, is the mystery here – the everything-or-nothing “hero-or-zero” dramatic tension that makes it a good story. Yet hardly anybody knows about it: whereas “Voynich” gets 242,000 hits, “Chaocipher” only merits 546 hits (i.e. 0.0022% as much).

Well, now you know as well: and if you want to know a little more about its cryptography, I’ve added a Chaocipher page here. But the real site to go to is Moshe Rubin’s “The Chaocipher Clearing House“, which is so new that even Google hasn’t yet found it (Moshe emailed me to tell me about it, thanks!) Exemplary, fascinating, splendid – highly recommended. 🙂

OK, enough of the raw factuality, time for the obligatory historical riff. 🙂

I’m struck by the parallels between John Byrne’s device and Leon Battista Alberti’s cipher wheel. Both men seem to have caught the leading edge of a wave and tried to harness its power for cryptography, and made high-falutin’ claims as to their respective cipher systems’ unbreakability: whereas Alberti’s wave was mathematical abstraction, Byrne’s wave was (very probably) algorithmic computing.

Circa 1920, this was very much in the air: when J. Lyons & Co. hired the mathematician J.R.M. Simmons in 1923, the company was thinking about machines, systems, and operational management: mathematical calculators were absolutely de rigeur for them. The first Enigma machines were constructed in the early 1920s (and used in a commercial environment), and there were doubtless many other broadly similar machines being invented at the same time.

Do I think that there was anything unbreakable in Byrne’s box? No, not really: the real magic in there was most likely a programmatic mindset that was cutting-edge in 1918, but might well look somewhat simplistic nearly a century later. But I could be wrong! 😉