Cryptographists just deciphered one of the famous indecipherable texts of the 18th century. Kevin Knight of USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schäfer of University of Uppsala  and others did the job – with science! Excellent coverage, pictures and excerpts courtesy of the University, also

The “Copiale Cipher” is a 105 pages manuscript containing all in all around 75 000 characters. Beautifully bound in green and gold brocade paper, written on high quality paper with two different watermarks, the manuscript can be dated back to 1760-1780. Apart from what is obviously an owner’s mark (“Philipp 1866”) and a note in the end of the last page (“Copiales 3”), the manuscript is completely encoded. The cipher employed consists of 90 different characters, comprising all from Roman and Greek letters, to diacritics and abstract symbols. Catchwords (preview fragments) of one to three or four characters are written at the bottom of left–hand pages.

Here is the transcript (for complete transcript, click here).

Transcription, transliteration and decipherment brought to light a German text obviously related to an 18th century secret society, namely the “oculist order”. A parallel manuscript is located at the Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv, Staatsarchiv Wolfenbüttel.

Rough english translation of the above german text (symbols marked by – ):

book of law

the illuminated – e –

secret part

first section

secret instruction of the apprentices.

first title.

ceremonies of introduction.

if the seurity of the – through the elder gatekeeper is accomplished and the – of the conductor is inaugurated with the donning of his hat, the candidate is retrieved from another room by the younger gatekeeper and led by the hand in front of the conductor’s – desk who asks him:

firstly, if he desires to become –

secondly, if he will submit himself to the requisitions and if he will endure the period of his apprenticeship without contumacy.

thirdly, the – the – […] to keep secret and if he will mandatorily comply [this part is hard because there are bits missing. But basically, it says, keep your mouth shut and obey.]

the candidate answers yes.

This is pretty cool. Congratulations to the team! What’s next?