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Cracking a 200 Year Old Cipher

By Adrian Lane

I have a half dozen books on Thomas Jefferson’s life, but this is a pretty cool story I had never heard before. The Wall Street Journal this morning has a story about a Professor Robert Patterson, who had developed what appears to be a reasonably advanced cipher, and sent an enciphered message to President Jefferson in 1801. He provided Jefferson with the the message, the cipher, and hints as to how it worked, but it is assumed that Jefferson was never able to decrypt the message. The message was only recently decrypted by Dr. Lawren Smithline, a 36-year-old mathematician who works at the Center for Communications Research in Princeton, N.J., a division of the Institute for Defense Analyses.

The key to the code consisted of a series of two-digit pairs. The first digit indicated the line number within a section, while the second was the number of letters added to the beginning of that row. For instance, if the key was 58, 71, 33, that meant that Mr. Patterson moved row five to the first line of a section and added eight random letters; then moved row seven to the second line and added one letter, and then moved row three to the third line and added three random letters. Mr. Patterson estimated that the potential combinations to solve the puzzle was “upwards of ninety millions of millions.”

After about a week of working on the puzzle, the numerical key to Mr. Patterson’s cipher emerged – 13, 34, 57, 65, 22, 78, 49. Using that digital key, he was able to unfurl the cipher’s text: “In Congress, July Fourth, one thousand seven hundred and seventy six. A declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. When in the course of human events…”

I am not sure why I am fascinated by this discovery. Perhaps it’s a bit like discovering hidden treasure.

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