The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Beale Cipher

Human Nature versus Cryptography

Do you know how many people think they are smarter than everyone else?
94%. -- Or at least this was the case in 1977, where professors said they were above average in relation to their peers.

When we rate others, we recognize the circumstances and characteristics that govern other people’s actions but when we think of ourselves, we overestimate our ability to do things. This is called the optimism bias and could be the main reason why people still continue to try to break the Beale Ciphers even though thousands of expert cryptanalysts have tried and unsurprisingly, failed to do so. This is because we think we are ‘not like everyone else’ and are somehow unconstrained by the same factors which affect other people’s realities. This is obviously false because we are humans, just like everyone else. Another innately human attribute, as well as the optimism bias, is the quest for everlasting life.

While many people throughout history have not been able to find the special elixir, also known as the fountain of youth, we can live on past our death in other ways. We can do this in the same way that Jesus, MLK or more aptly, Beale did – by changing history. And in effect, we will become immortal. And what better way to become immortal than to break an incredibly difficult, some say impossible, cipher that may have a prize of a cool $42 million?

There are a variety of reasons why we would try to break a seemingly unbreakable cipher, and most of them are due to our very nature as human beings. Whether it be our optimism bias, our longing for immortality, or even our curiosity, these are innate qualities and so, I would not be surprised if 100 years from now people still continue to attempt to solve the Beale Ciphers.

Reference: 2013. Everyone thinks they are above average. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 September 2017].

Odd Drawings and a Secret Script: The Voynich Manuscript

While perusing Elonka’s website, I was fascinated by her page of “Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers”. Like Sara stated in her blog post, it is so astonishing to think about how even with modern technology and current knowledge, there are still numerous ancient ciphers that have yet to be broken, including the Beale Ciphers and the Voynich Manuscript.

I was not surprised that the Beale Ciphers was seated at the top of the list, which was ordered in terms of “fame.” In class, we discussed how its popularity most likely stemmed from the monetary prize associated with cracking it. Both professional cryptanalysts and amateurs have taken a crack at the Beale Ciphers, motivated largely by the potential of finding $20 million worth of treasure.

Although we have discussed the Beale Ciphers at length in class, the majority of the ciphers on the list were foreign to me. I found the Voynich Manuscript to be particularly intriguing. The Voynich Manuscript, which was constructed in the early 1400s, is a staggering 232 pages long. Its uniqueness stems from the fact that it not only contains text, but that it consists of drawings as well. Eccentric drawings of plants, herbal recipes, astrological diagrams, and humans in plumbing-like contraptions dominate its pages. This makes me wonder: what role do the drawings serve? Do the drawings contain the key to decrypting the text?

In class, we talked about the advantage of having a substantial amount of encrypted text when attempting to break a cipher. The Voynich Manuscript poses no problem in this respect. However, it is written in an unknown script of which there is no known other example of in the world. The script is alphabetic in nature, but shares no letters with any English or European alphabets. While this greatly elevates the difficulty of decrypting the script, it makes the manuscript equally more intriguing as well.

The Voynich Manuscript is considered ‘The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World.’ Although it is possible that it is just a great hoax with no true meaning, crpytanalysts continue to devote extreme amounts of time and effort towards decoding it. Not only would decryption explain the strange drawings, but it would also reveal a new language never seen before. The Voynich Manuscript is simply fascinating; how and when it will be solved still remain a complete mystery, but I eagerly await its decryption.

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Temptation and Treasure

Although thousands of intelligent, well-trained people have attempted to break the Beale ciphers, they remain a mystery. However, the defeats of the past do not deter the many people who still try to crack the code. Some of these people are driven by the thought of the treasure buried by Beale years ago. A potential reward of $20 million can be highly motivating. For most, though, it is likely more than that—after all, trying to break an unbreakable code is sort of terrible as a get-rich-quick scheme. Instead, it is the tale itself that is the draw. A mysterious stranger, buried treasure, coded notes—it all reads like an adventure story, and that’s something people want to be a part of.  We are surrounded by stories like this our whole lives, and as children we play at being pirates following a map to the buried chest of gold. Attempting to solve the Beale ciphers makes this childhood game a reality.

Additionally, some cryptographers reason that someone has to eventually come up with a solution—so why not them? We often think that we will be able to be the one who solves a problem even if we’ve seen many people fail at the same task. This can be commonly seen in simple everyday tasks. If one person in a group tries to open a door and gives up, saying it’s locked or stuck, often others will test the handle for themselves. Even if they don’t consciously realize it, they believe that they will be able to do better than the first person—somehow if they jiggle the handle differently or apply enough pressure the door will open for them. The Beale ciphers are a locked door behind which lies the answer to a hundred-year-old mystery. It’s just too much to resist.


Unfinished Business

To the amateur cryptographer, or simply the budding enthusiast, the Beale Ciphers represent the ideal, a perfect challenge, and, the clincher, buried treasure. Starting as children, we are read pirate stories: buried treasure, untold riches, fame and fortune for those who find it. The fact that the Beale Ciphers have a story to go along with them increases the draw. The possibility that a story is all this is lends to the sense of mystery, and to the success if one were to succeed in deciphering the first and third ciphers. For amateurs, I think there is always a pull around trying to decipher the big ciphers that no professional has been able to crack. Part of that pull seems like a lofty dream, and part of it seems like human ego: the "I can do it, even though no one else can" mentality.

To professional cryptographers, though, the Beale Ciphers, while they have all the same draws as for amateurs, also represent unfinished business. They are half-cracked, partially deciphered. Why aren't the other two ciphers decipherable? Are they really just gibberish? Giving up on something so fascinating, and something that has frustrated incredible cryptanalysts for over a century, isn't an option to a community of professional puzzle-solvers. Since the second cipher was deciphered, there's a sense of hope surrounding the Beale Ciphers, that maybe they are as real as the story would have us believe. And if they are real, how can cryptanalysts give up? Treasure worth $20 million in today's currency is mind-blowing. Not many people are going to turn their backs on that, especially if they think they have the ability to figure it out.


Uncovering the Unknown

The main reason for the Beale ciphers being so incredibly enduring and tough to crack is because they require a unique keytext such as a book or letter. This allows the cryptographer to be limitlessly creative in the construction of a keytext. It could be a personal letter or a well-known book. The motivation that some cryptanalysts still have to break the Beale ciphers comes from both intrinsic motivation and gain of wealth and fame. The feeling of breaking such a difficult cipher can give people a rush of self-satisfaction which can be enough to motivate anyone. Uncovering this cipher could bring joy to a true cryptoanalyst.There are also the gold, silver, and jewels involved which would advance the wealth of a code breaker.

Sense of Nonsense

It is amazing to think that in the current age there are still mysteries waiting to be sovled. The progress of science has made so many advances and solved so many problems that it seems almost as if there can't be any mysteries left. Amazingly, after 100 years, the Beale ciphers have remained an uncrackable mystery. Considering the amount of resources, time, and manpower that has been spent on this two page cipher, it's very reasonable to say that if it hasn't been cracked by now, it might not ever be. Even though hundreds of people have tried, failed, and wasted years of their lives on this one cipher, people still believe that they will be the one person to figure out the mystery. The easiest explanation of this drive is simply greed. The one page of the Beale cipher that was decrypted referred to a buried treasure worth over $20 million. That amount of money is tempting to any person, treasure hunter or not. Though the dollar sum itself is motivation, there is also another part to mysteries that drives people's need to figure them out. The human brain is naturally curious, and when things don't make sense we want to find a way to make sense of it. The desire to organize this chaotic world is why humans like to imagine the outline of a snake or a bear in the stars when they are really just randomly placed dots of light. Naturally contradictory, people at the same time love the mystery and suspense of a hidden buried treasure and love to make sense of nonsense. Though the Beale ciphers might really be impossible to crack, there will never be a shortage of people working to be that one person who solves yet another mystery of this world.

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The Mystery of the Unknown

Beale Papers Pamphlet
The Beale Cipher is indeed one of the modern mysteries of cryptography, and the fact that it is mostly unbroken can either mean one of two things: the answer continues to allude the thousands of cryptanalysts and treasure hunters who have tried thus far, or the cipher is indeed faked, and there is no actual solution. If it is indeed the latter and the cipher is a fake, then there is no reason for people to continue. There would be no treasure for the treasure hunters, and there would be no actual solution to find for the people who just want to solve the cipher.

However, the fact is that no one knows for sure whether the cipher is a fake or not, meaning that there is a chance that there is an actual solution, and maybe even an actual treasure.

It is unlikely, however, that at this point in time the actual worth of the treasure has any significant effect on the desire to crack the code, but it is possible. The fact that so many people have failed to crack it means that no one person can really expect to solve it, hence the likelihood they solve the code and find the treasure must be really small. Therefore, the majority of the motivation for looking for the solution is probably just the mystery that surrounds the code, the fact that it is unsolved. These are the types of people who are doing it for fun, because they can. What better reason is there than that.

Image Credit: "Beale Papers" Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

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The Beale Ciphers Continue to "Puzzle" Cryptanalysts

The Beale Ciphers remain tantalizing to this day for two main reasons. First, the magnitude of the reward is impressive. $20 million is a lot more money than the average American will see in his or her lifetime. Coming into such a sum by simply solving a puzzle seems ridiculous.

Which leads to the next reason: because the Beale Ciphers are “simply” puzzles, it stands to reason that a person may have some insight that none of the previous cryptanalysts have had. There is a chance that any individual, professional or amateur, may stumble upon the correct answer. Because stories such as these are impressive, history has preserved them, which feeds our belief that we could be the next such lucky individual.

 Image: "Puzzled," by Mykl Roventine

Motivation for Cracking Ciphers

The Beale Cipher consists of three cipher texts and only one has been cracked throughout the past one hundred years. One of the ciphers allegedly leads to where the treasure of over $20 million is located and the other two texts, one of which has been deciphered, are apparently descriptions of the actual treasure itself. The world’s most clever cryptographers have been trying to decipher the Beale Cipher for years, but it is hard to imagine why they would continue to try. Human beings are naturally curious, thus whether one is trying to decipher the Beale Cipher or a code we receive on our problem set, we strive to figure it out no matter how long it takes. When specifically looking at the motivation for solving the Beale Cipher, the incentive is of course the apparent money reward. By the same token, the glory one would receive if they were to crack the Beale Cipher would make all of their work worth it.

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