Last year, USC machine translation specialist Kevin Knight and his group of researchers cracked the “Copiale cipher”, 105 pages of mysterious enciphered text from the 18th century. Yesterday, Wired published this fascinating and detailed account of how it all went down, and what’s happened since then:
The decoding effort started as a sort of game between two friends that eventually engulfed a team of experts in disciplines ranging from machine translation to intellectual history. Its significance goes far beyond the contents of a single cipher. Hidden within coded manuscripts like these is a secret history of how esoteric, often radical notions of science, politics, and religion spread underground.
Uncovering the meaning of the mysterious symbols was only the first piece of a deeper puzzle: Understanding the organizations that spent so much time developing cryptographic methods to hide their rituals from the world.
After reading the Oculists’ cipher, Önnerfors suggested that it described one of the more extreme groups. Forget the implicit threats to the state or church. In part of the Copiale, there’s explicit talk about slaying the tyrannical “three-headed monster” who “deprive[s] man of his natural freedom.” There’s even a call for a “general revolt.” Remember, Önnerfors told the code-breakers, this book was written in the 1740s—30 years before the Declaration of Independence. “To someone at the time,” he added, “this would be like reading a manifesto from a terrorist organization.”
The Copiale cipher turned out to be a homophonic substitution cipher, the same general technique Zodiac used to construct his 408-character cipher. Kevin and his team have also studied the Zodiac ciphers, and I’m hopeful they will continue to give them some academic attention. They have also published a fascinating review of what we know about the Voynich Manuscript, the book containing 240 pages of bizarre symbols that have remained undeciphered for about 600 years. As Kevin’s team, and other researchers like them, continue to improve their decipherment and translation technologies, we can hope to unlock even more mysteries, perhaps even the Zodiac ciphers.