The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: The Great Cipher

Power of The Great Cipher

There exists a never ending battle in the field of cryptography between those coming up with encryption methods and encrypting messages to those trying to break these ciphers. This back and forth is an ongoing and fairly quick process with each side constantly making advancements. However, the 2nd chapter of Singh discussed "The Great Cipher" which was the cipher used by Louis XIV, which remained unbroken for 200 years. The obvious question is then, what made this particular cipher so difficult and take so long to crack?

There are multiple reasons for this, starting with the complexity of the code itself. The code was comprised of 587 unique numbers with thousands of numbers altogether. This alone makes it very difficult to decipher as if you were assuming these numbers corresponded to letters or a set number of letters, as there would have to be repeated elements of the cipher text corresponding to the same thing in the plain text, which would render frequency analysis practically useless. This leads into the next reason why the cipher was so secure, which is that the numbers corresponded to syllables instead of letters or groups of letters. The majority of the ciphers up till this point revolved around changing something into individual letters, so this not being the case probably threw off many would be deciphers of the text.

Lastly, one of the main reasons this code was so secure is the technology that was available at the time. Nowadays with our computers, excel files, other programs and whatnot it is fairly simple and straightforward to do things such as frequency analysis or substituting in sequences in the cipher text for what we assume it to be in plain text. However, back in the 17th and 18th centuries performing these tasks by hand (especially with a text thousands of characters long) would be an incredibly daunting task. The sheer time commitment it would take to decipher a text of this length would be enormous and this probably discouraged many people from attempting to decipher it.


Unbreakable Cipher

The Great Cipher used by Louis XIV remained unbroken for 200 years.  What were the factors that led to such a secure cipher?

The Great Cipher, invented by Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol, was one of the toughest codes to decipher. There are some very important factors to consider when trying to understand why it may have taken so long for someone to crack it. First of all, Antoine got his recognition for deciphering the letter that resulted in a victory for the French. With his work in cryptanalysis he and his son were appointed to the senior positions in the court, so by this time he has already established his reputation as being one of the best cryptanalysts in Europe. His expertise gives him an advantage because he can recognize the weaknesses in ciphers, therefore when he has to create his own, he would know how to make it indecipherable. Of course, this is relative because ciphers can only stay indecipherable for so long before new methods are developed by cryptanalysts to break them. Second, it is usually a weakness to have a long cipher text because it gives the other person a better chance to recognize patterns, however, this cipher had thousands of symbols with only 587 of them being different. This only makes it a lot more difficult for someone to decipher it because it gives them too much information to work with which instead of showing a pattern, creates confusion. Finally, the more time that passes, the harder it is for someone to decipher a text because of lack of contextual clues. When it is the same time period, there is a better chance to crack a cipher text because you would be fully immersed in the linguistics of that society. Since language evolves over time it is best to try to decipher a code as soon as possible. Because of the complexity of the Great Cipher it did take a lot of dedication and persistence for Bazeries to finally crack it after 200 years.

Phonetic Way of Mind

The Great Cipher used by Louis XIV remained unbroken for 200 years.  What were the factors that led to such a secure cipher?

The cipher was pioneered by a father and son duo, most of the specifics to how it exactly worked were known best by these two people. With the death of both father and son, the specifics of the cipher were quickly lost. When there are no people around that know how to use and reproduce the cipher, the motive to crack it is lost. There was some important information enciphered with The Great Cipher, however nobody was actively using it, so resources used to crack ciphers would be diverted to cracking ciphers used at that time. The lack of motive is the smallest reason as to why it took so long to crack; the cipher itself is very elegant and complex. This cipher was not one that took a written word then simply changed letters, it was a completely new way to write down the language. Languages operate with distinct sounds that can be represented by letters, putting two letters together will change the sound. Writing a cipher with syllables in mind will make it more difficult to crack, especially to a cryptanalyst who writes with an alphabetic language (like English). On top of that, The Great Cipher had certain traps put into place that would make certain parts look like gibberish causing cryptanalyst to reevaluate the type of cipher.

In my opinion, a syllabary cipher would be most effective today. This is because most of society is literate and thinks in a similar manner to the way we write, letter for letter, not letter for sound. Using syllables, but re-vamping it with more traps, would confuse people because they are not used to naturally thinking in that manner when writing.


(I double checked some facts here and here

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Not Your Average Monoalphabetic Cipher

The Great Cipher used by Louis XIV remained unbroken for 200 years.  What were the factors that led to such a secure cipher?

The father-son team of Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol invented The Great Cipher while working closely with Louis XIV as his cryptanalysts. Initially, they were mainly code breakers, but their skill gave them the idea to create a much stronger way to encrypt messages. This idea turned into the Great Cipher. This cipher was very useful for the French and no enemy cryptanalysts were able to crack it. Unfortunately, the Rossignols's death also meant that the Great Cipher's secrets were lost and any archives encoded using it could no longer be read. Although this was inconvenient for the French, the real struggle would be experienced by future generations of code breakers. Eventually letters encrypted by the Great Cipher were passed on to Étienne Bazeries who worked tirelessly to decipher the letters. The high security of the cipher made it nearly impossible to decode.

The first factor that led to this secure cipher was the amount of characters included. 587 different characters immediately made it clear that the it was not a substitution cipher and later, Étienne also discovered it was not a homophonic cipher (a cipher that replaces letters with a proportional number of symbols to how often that letter is used). Later he would also try to decipher it as a digraph (one number represents a pair of letters), but this also was not correct. The grunt work that decoding the Great Cipher must have required is astonishing because the text says each idea could take Étienne multiple months to prove wrong. Eventually, Étienne was struck with the idea that each number represented a whole syllable. After tirelessly working on this idea, he was able to decode 124-22-125-46-345 as meaning "les ennemis". This crucial breakthrough led to Étienne's eventual success despite variations in the cipher and traps laid by the Rossignols. This elaborate cipher truly deserved its name as "The Great Cipher".

Bazeries’ Quest Against The Great Cipher

The Great Cipher used by Louis XIV implemented a different method of cryptography and ciphering than ever before. The monoalphabetic substitution cipher was too easy to break while the polyalphabetic cipher created by Vigenère took too long to encipher and decode which was not efficient for military operations. The Great Cipher, created by the Rossingols and later cracked by Bazeries, utilized not only letters, but also numbers in the cipher. And the different numbers did not represent letters; they mostly represented syllables. This cipher also included traps. For example, some numbers initiated the deletion of the previous number. Some of the numbers did not represent syllables but single letters. The sophisticated nature of this cipher contributed to its dormancy for two centuries. Yet the ease of deciphering a message ciphered using the Great Cipher was quick enough to be used for military purposes, if the cipher was known. Another characteristic of the Great Cipher that was impressive was that it almost completely paralyzed the use of frequency analysis. Although frequency analysis actually lead to Bazeries cracking of the cipher when he noticed a repeated sequence of numbers. But he then completely guessed what those numbers could mean and he happened to be spot on.

Étienne Bazeries: Ahead of His Time

The Great Cipher, used by Louis XIV, was far more complex than any cipher used in the 17th century. It was not simply a substitution cipher nor a homophone cipher. Étienne Bazeries considered that the Great Cipher could be a digraph, which meant that each number represented a pair of letters instead of a single letter. After months of work, Bazeries came to the conclusion that the cipher was not a digraph. He stuck with the concept that each number represented multiple letters, considering that they could possibly represent syllables. After deciphering two words, les ennemis, Bazeries was able to decipher the rest of the text. Another factor that made the Great Cipher so complex was that some of the numbers did not represent single letters nor syllables. Instead these numbers simply deleted the number before them. The Great Cipher was so far beyond its time period that it took centuries for cryptanalysts to catch up and approach the cipher from a different angle.

Syllable Substitution

The Great Cipher of Louis XIV was truly a remarkable cipher, and its longevity only attests to its success. Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol were the masterminds behind its brilliance, and with their death brought the end of its effective use. During the time of its use, the Rossignols lived adjacent to Louis XIV, since they were the only ones who could effectively use it. The fact that it took two centuries to crack is beyond remarkable, and it deserves praise.

The key to its success and difficulty was that the plain text was not explicitly the 26 letters of the alphabet. Most monoalphabetic and polyalphabetic substitutions start with the initial 26 letters (a, b, c, ... z) as the original plain text and substitute each letter with another letter (or in the case of polyalphabetic ciphers) or maybe a couple letters. But the fact is that the plain text and the cipher text will be limited to the 26 letters of the alphabet, no matter the method of cipher used. This cipher was unique compared to others because the original plain text consisted of all of the individual sounds or syllable used, hence there were many, many more original plain text "letters" compared to an ordinary substitution ciphers. Therefore numbers had to be used rather than letters because there was no alphabet large enough to contain all of the syllables in the language.

Additionally, the Rossignols added traps within the cipher, such as numbers that adjusted adjacent numbers (like removing them entirely). Numbers also often translated to single letters rather than syllables which threw off people who attempted to decipher it. These key differences made the code inefficient since there were so many different "letters" that a person needed to keep track of, but at the same time made it virtually uncrackable to even the most scholarly people. If it were not for the sheer size of the pool of the total numbers used, people would have undoubtedly continued to use it.

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The Durability of the Rossignols' Great Cipher

The fact that the Rossignols' Great Cipher remained invincible to decryption for over 200 years can be linked to both the complexity of the cipher and its novelty. The 587 different numbers used in the cipher creates thousands of possibilities; with hundreds of substitutions, any combination of multiple letters can be represented by a variety of numbers, and multiple letters or combinations of letters can have more than one number assigned to them. In Simon Singh’s The Code Book, he says that Bazeries spent months testing theories, only to find that they were incorrect (56). Immense time and effort were required to test simple possible theories, and traps were laid by the Rossignol to derail decryption efforts.

Another important factor in the Great Cipher was its ability to render frequency analysis obsolete. The cryptanalysts’ most useful tool was useless against this cipher. In order to decrypt the cipher, cryptanalysts needed to develop a completely new method, not just adapt an old one. In addition, the use of the cipher slowly faded after the death of the Rossignols, so no new messages could be created and examined. The urgency to decrypt the cipher also lessened after the cipher was no longer being used; the value of the messages became purely historical and held no political, military, or strategic value. The industrialization of cryptanalysis occurred after the Great Cipher and focused on monoalphabetic ciphers and messages in circulations, so the Great Cipher remained relevant to historians, but not to those with power and resources.

The Great Headache

The Great Cipher used by King Louis XIV was an extremely strong cipher for several reasons. First, the cipher text included 587 different numbers. This magnitude of possible decipherments was the first line of defense. Additionally, because multiple cipher types had been created by the time the Great Cipher was implemented, there were many more possibilities for the encryption than just the simple monoalphabetic cipher. However, the Rossignols chose not to use any previously created ciphers, vouching instead to devise their own. This creativity further complicated the matter of decipherment. Because the Great Cipher substituted numbers for syllables, any letter-based frequency analysis was useless. This major difference was probably the biggest reason why the cipher stayed unbroken for so long. Once discovering the substitution for syllables, the hard work of decipherment was still far from completion. The next stumbling block came in the form of inconsistency. Some of the numbers stood not for syllables, but for individual letters. Finally, the Rossignols laid “traps”, as Singh refers to them, within the cipher itself. One such example is a number which deletes the previous number. Combining all the individual parts of the Great Cipher results in a code which is devilishly difficult to decipher. Considering all the intricacies of the Great Cipher, it is little wonder that it remained a mystery for two centuries.

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