The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Unsolved Codes and Ciphers

While exploring Elonka Dunin’s website, I came across her list of “Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers.”  I thought that this section was particularly interesting because we have read about some of the ciphers or codes in class, and it fascinates me that despite the copious amount of technological and historical resources that we have at our hands, impenetrable ciphers and codes still exist.

Elonka ranked the unsolved codes and ciphers based on their “fame,” which she determined by how many times they appeared in articles or how many “hits” they had on Google.  The first cipher she listed was the Beale Cipher, which we read about in The Code Book by Simon Singh.  The Beale Ciphers include three documents that detail the location of a secret treasure, which according to Singh is worth $20 million by today’s standards.  One of the papers has been solved, which is how knowledge of this hidden treasure first came about; however, the other two papers, which apparently hold the secret to the treasure’s location, remain unsolved.

We discussed in class how despite the Beale cipher’s impenetrability, its mystery provides incredible intrigue for cryptographers.  The desire to crack the cipher will live on for some time.  Elonka says on her website that there have been many “claimed solutions” (which she provides a link to), as well as speculation that the entire thing is a hoax.  Both were points brought up in class, and I thought it was really interesting to see firsthand accounts, provided by Elonka, of individuals attempting to break the cipher.

At the bottom of the page, Elonka also includes a list of “Famous Unsolved Codes That Have Since Been Solved.”  It is fascinating that codes and ciphers that were once determined impenetrable were later solved.  I believe that this is the reason why many still have hope for ciphers such as the Beale Cipher.  If Edgar Allen Poe’s Cryptographic Challenge ciphers were broken after 150 years, why can’t the Beale Cipher?


Blog Assignment #5


4 Codes, 1 Sculpture: Kryptos


  1. Ling

    I, too, found Elonka Dunin’s section on “Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers” to be particularly interesting. Especially with the vast amount of technology at our disposal today, it is quite surprising that we still aren’t able to break ciphers that were created centuries ago, when the knowledge and resources in cryptography weren’t as bountiful as they are today.

    In particular, the Beale Ciphers sparked my interest because, as Singh mentioned in The Code Book that we read for the class, there allegedly is an extremely large monetary value granted to those who decode the cipher. No doubt the knowledge of this reward is a huge motivator for cryptanalysts to attempt to decipher the message, which leads me to wonder how, if the reward is so great and draws such a large audience, has no one managed to crack it? The fact that there has been so many attempts and unsubstantiated “claimed solutions” of Beale Ciphers, as addressed on Elonka’s website, proves that there is quite an interest in breaking the cipher among cryptanalysts.

    Yet it is also because of the fact that no real progress has been made on the Beale Ciphers in over a century that leads me to question the background story of the cipher, and whether or not there is actually a treasure to be sought from it, and even if the cipher is decipherable. As Tsais did mention, these suspicions of the entire cipher and its story being a hoax were talked about in class, and the evidence, or rather the lack of, hints that such suspicions may in fact be true.

  2. yanrong

    I was also fascinated by the “Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers” when exploring Elonka Dunin’s website. The Beale cipher, on the top of the list, serves as a great example of a cipher that has remained unbreakable for more than a century. I agree with both Tsais and Ling and believe that it is hard to determine whether the Beale cipher is a hoax or just an extremely strong cipher that will eventually be deciphered just like Poe’s cryptographic challenge ciphers.

    But this really got me thinking about the notion of “a good cipher”. If a cipher is strong enough to the degree that it is considered “unbreakable” by many, does that make it the best and the most well-designed cipher? Moreover, just like the Beale cipher, since the cipher hasn’t been broken yet, how do we know it is really a decipherable cipher but not some random characters put up as a hoax? I believed that good ciphers or codes were those that can hide the secret messages from everyone else except for the intended recipients. But when there is no specific intended recipient, just like Kryptos and d’Agapeyeff ciphers, would the justification change? These are some questions I asked myself after reading Elonka’s website and hopefully I will have some answers later in the course.

    • Derek

      Good questions, Yanrong. I would agree that a “good” cipher is one that communicates a message to the intended recipient, but no one else. Kryptos is certainly hard to crack, but as a communication method, well, that wasn’t really the point. It does seem to fall into a different category.

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