The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Deciphering the Great Cipher

For an impressive two-hundred years, the Great Cipher of Louis XIV thwarted several generations of accomplished cryptanalysts – a surprising feat, given that it did so through the manipulation of a substitution cipher. The cipher was created by the son-and-father pair of Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignal, who were recognized by King Louis XIV for their cryptological prowess. Their cipher was so secure that upon their deaths, decipherment of the French archives became impossible for the following two centuries. In 1890, however, Commandant  Etienne Bazeries, a distinguished expert of the French Army’s Cryptographic Department, began a successful three year endeavor of cracking the 17th-century code.

Despite Commandant Bazeries’ success in deciphering the Great Cipher of Louis XIV, the cipher can be termed “secure,” for it served its purpose well over its intended lifespan. Its success can be attributed to several ingenious cryptographic techniques that the Rossignal’s implemented into the cipher. The superficial level of complexity in the cipher is found in its range of representative numbers, of which there were 587, altogether representing only 26 letters. The wide range of numbers thus circumvented the technique of frequency analysis in its most basic application, for each letter would be represented by more than a single number. Realizing this, Bazeries applied frequency analysis in search of French diagraphs, with which he had no success. Frequency analysis proved effective only in the search of syllabic combinations, meaning that the cipher was constructed entirely from syllables. This characteristic probably grants the cipher most of its security. Because syllables exist in such variety, can be composed of one, two, or three letters of the English alphabet, and have less obvious patterns, it is considerably difficult to identify an applicable permutation of the assumed cipher. Moreover, the Rossignal’s integrated traps within the cipher to mislead a cryptanalyst from deducing the cipher-text. One trap, for example, included numbers that would essentially remove the number prior to it.

The use of syllabic substitution as well as the traps employed by the Rossignal’s certainly attributed to the considerable success of the Great Cipher of Louis XIV. However, as history has demonstrated time and time again, decipherment is only a matter of time.


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1 Comment

  1. Derek

    Great last line! This line also struck me: "a surprising feat, given that it did so through the manipulation of a substitution cipher." That's a great point, that even something as straightforward as a substitution cipher could stay unbroken for so long. My guess is that many of those who tried to break it assumed that it was something more sophisticated than a substitution cipher!

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