The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

The Temptation of the Beale Ciphers

The $20 million treasure of the Beale ciphers immediately grabs the attention of any amateur or professional cryptanalyst. The sheer amount of money involved with the Beale ciphers serves as the main attraction for those who want to break the cipher. In addition to monetary gain, the cryptanalyst who breaks the cipher will become famous, unlike the cryptanalysts who work in secretive military settings. As more people attempt to break the cipher and fail, the recognition and potential fame increase. The combination of money and fame is reason enough to try to pursue the solution of the Beale ciphers. However, an aspect of human nature also pushes people to try to crack the cipher. People naturally believe that they might notice a clue or hint that has been overlooked by others. They might see themselves as more cunning or clever, and therefore more capable of breaking the cipher. Also, because the second message has already been uncovered, the idea that the cipher is breakable exists. People naturally assume that the other two can be solved because one of the ciphers has already been solved. A more uncommon reason why someone might decide to pursue the cipher might be to try his/her luck. If the ciphers were viewed as a lottery, the person that happens to stumble upon the text used to create the cipher would colloquially “hit the jackpot.”

Image: “here’s hoping,” by Robert Donovan, Flickr (CC)


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  1. Parker

    It can’t be that hard. It has to be able to be broken, right? I don’t think so. I think the Beale ciphers are unbreakable. If they are, as some theorists conjecture, based off of a book cipher from a personal letter that has since been lost, I don’t think the ciphers will ever be broken, but that, however, does not deter the large number of people from trying it out for themselves.
    I think the idea behind this get-rich-quick-scheme says a lot about our society. Like YEHJ said, the main attraction for tackling these ciphers is the money. YEHJ even mentions some sort of fault in human character as another key reason why people keep trying; could that fault possibly be hope? The idea that no matter how many life-devoted experts cannot break the cipher, that you can? I do not know if that is any fault at all. It is not a mistaken belief of cunning and cleverness or even an unfounded arrogance, it is simply the idea of hope.
    People refuse to believe something is impossible and will go to great lengths to prove people wrong. Just look at Charles Babbage. The Vigenère cipher was also widely thought to be uncrackable, but Babbage exposed its vulnerabilities due to the fact that he absolutely refused to believe in its uncrackability.
    I hope that someone proves me and the world wrong and cracks the Beale ciphers. If I did, however, in some way to inspire you, I expect a share.

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