The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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The Everest of Cryptanalysis

As Singh indicates in his The Code Book, the Beale Ciphers have gone unbroken for over a hundred years, the best and brightest minds of recent decades pouring hours upon hours into the effort of deciphering them. Unfortunately, their work, as of yet, has borne no fruit. Ultimately, this begs the question: why do people continue to attempt that which has eluded the brightest minds of this generation and those long since passed?

I believe the answer is twofold. Of course, money is a key motivating factor. $20 million by today’s standards is quite a bot of cash, and would enable an individual to live quite comfortably for the rest of their days. In fact, as Singh points out, there are entire societies that have been formed around the goal of solving the Beale Ciphers, their membership contingent on how the treasure, should it be discovered, would be allocated to the members of said society; often, the people who crack the cipher believe they should have the right to keep all of it. For that reason, it is impossible not to acknowledge money and, by extension, greed, as one of the key motivators that drives people to crack the Beale Cipher.

Beyond that, however, lie the intellectuals, those who see the Beale Ciphers as the ultimate challenge, akin to winning a Nobel Prize or Fields Medal. For them, the money is irrelevant, as the Beale Ciphers serve as the perfect opportunity to affirm their skills as cryptanalysts and codebreakers. These people are likely driven by pure intellectual curiosity, much like Babbage and Poe, wanting to test their abilities against the hardest cryptographic problem the world has yet to offer. For that reason, their motivation for solving the Beale Ciphers is akin to that of George Mallory’s for climbing Mount Everest: because they’re there, they must be solved.

Mount Everest

George Mallory was a British mountaineer who was the first person to climb Mount Everest. Famously when he was asked why he decided to climb Mount Everest he replied “Because it’s there.” The sake of discovery for the sake of discovery. Humanity is incredibly advanced and throughout the long history of civilization, countless hours have been poured into almost every task. Becoming the first person to do anything, to discover something new is a very clear and distinct motivation. Similarly, which is why people approach famously unsolved problems in mathematics. When I first discovered the 3n+1 conjecture I knew that hundreds of mathematicians which were all much more educated that I had tried it and failed. Without any hope of discovering anything new I still tried a couple of times to think about the conjecture differently simply because there is always hope. Similarly people still attempt the Beale ciphers simply because they wish to try and do something no one has done before. Another interesting motivation is the new technique needed to solve this cipher. This is analogous to the Riemann hypothesis. Many people erroneously believe that proving the hypothesis will revolutionize the world and lead to teleportation or discoveries of new technologies. The importance of the conjecture comes in making it, in fact there are many papers written which simply assume it to be true. The reason why there are still so many attempting to prove it is because after all of the discovering techniques have been tried endlessly, still the problem remains. Solving it would require a completely new technique which would in fact revolutionize at least mathematics. Similarly cryptography could change forever.

Why are the Beale Ciphers so Enticing?

The Beale ciphers are a mystery. No one truly knows if the treasure is real or fabricated. The book said that “Skeptics believe that the entire story was fabricated to profit from the greed of others.” Even though the story may possibly be a hoax, people will not stop trying to decrypt the message. One reason why people are still trying to decrypt the message is the reward. Twenty million dollars is a large amount of money, and some people will do whatever they can to get their hands on it. Greed can motivate people to do outrageous things, that includes solving an extremely difficult encryption.

Being acknowledged is another reason why people are still trying to break the ciphers. If I was to somehow be able to decode the Beale ciphers, the money would be amazing, but I want the acknowledgment that comes with it. It is a dream of mine to be recognized for my efforts, and I believe that others feel the same. If I was to crack a code that has not been broken in around two hundred years, I would be filled with pride. Solving encryptions takes luck, logic, and creativity. If a person was to decipher the Beale ciphers, they would feel accomplished for all of the work that they had to do to solve it since it is not an easily breakable cipher. I believe that the treasure has already been found either by luck or deciphering the encryption. According to the book, conspiracy theorists believe that the treasure has been found by the NSA. It is very likely that the treasure is not real, but people still want to solve it to get recognition.

The Allure of an Undecipherable Cipher

The Beale Ciphers, despite the attempts of hundreds if not thousands of cryptanalysts, have never been broken before, and might never be broken in the future. Two of the three pages that Beale left behind are still shrouded in complete mystery, and likely will remain a mystery unless someone manages to find the key that Beale used to encode the ciphers. In all likelihood, all the cryptanalysts working on the cipher are wasting their time while hoping for an outcome that will never come. So why are so many people so interested in cracking the Beale Cipher?

The first and most obvious, though perhaps not the primary answer is the promise of wealth. Allegedly, the rest of the Beale Ciphers will lead the one who cracks the code to the treasure trove that Beale hid somewhere within 4 miles of Buford’s Tavern. This was the primary motivation of the cryptanalysts during and immediately after Beale’s time, because everyone wanted to be the first to solve it and get Beale’s fortune. However, as time went on, hope of getting the money slowly faded, but people still actively try to crack the Beale Cipher. For them, the pursuit of fame, glory, and the unknown is enough to keep them going. Being the first person to solve a 200 year old, perviously unbreakable cipher would certainly be neat, even if the papers didn’t actually lead to a $20 million grand prize. Their name would go down in history along with Babbage, Kasinki, and Bazeries as the people who finally cracked ciphers that completely baffled everyone else. It’s a similar story with the Zodiac letters. Two of the letters have been decoded, but the remaining two are still completely undecipherable. Despite the many failed attempts by amateurs and professionals alike, many people still actively try to solve both ciphers, though not as much for practical purposes as for the thrill of the hunt.

Why are People Still Trying to Solve the Beale Ciphers?

The first, most obvious answer to this question is that people are still attempt the Beale ciphers for the possible monetary gain. 20 million dollars is a lot of money, and solving the ciphers would be a relatively low effort way of acquiring all that money and getting rich. When I say relatively low effort, I mean that it doesn’t require years of schooling, starting a business, or somehow becoming wealthy in the way the average millionaire does. In a sense, solving the Beale ciphers is like winning the lottery, except that it actually requires skill.

The Beale ciphers appeal to people because they believe that they don’t have to do too much to solve it, and that if they somehow did, the benefits would be worth it. I think that as people continue to try the ciphers and rule out certain ideas, it makes newcomers confident that they’ll be able to figure out a new possibility. Hypothetically, if everyone on the planet were able to try a method to solve this multiple times a day, It would slowly be narrowed down until somebody figured it out. This could take many years, but it would still be solved eventually. This group effort is a possibility for why people still want to try it. In addition, someone could just use the second letter for clues, and find the treasure without actually solving the rest of the cipher, which takes out the intellectual effort and really makes it like winning the lottery. All they would have to do is dig up a whole bunch of holes 4 miles from Buford, and eventually, they may find it.

The last reason why it might still be appealing is that its just fun to try. A lot of people love solving puzzles and stuff like that, and this isn’t all that different fro Harajuku Madness from Little Brother. It’s the same kind of thing that draws people to things like Cicada and Geocaching and other things like that. Also, who wouldn’t want to be the person known for solving a 200 year old cipher and getting 20 million dollars?

The Appeal of an Unbreakable Cipher

The unbroken Beale ciphers, likely enciphered using a book cipher, will remain nearly impossible to break until we figure out what key text was used to encipher them. Despite this, cryptanalysts have been trying to decipher the messages using various key texts, essentially guessing and checking in the hopes that they stumble upon the correct one. At this point, a reasonable guess is that the key text was a letter written by Beale himself, and without that letter, the ciphers will remain unbroken.

Nevertheless, people continue to try to break the ciphers with various different methods. Some test new key texts and hope to crack the cipher by pure luck; others try cracking the cipher in new ways in hopes that the messages were encoded with something other than a book cipher. Either way, these efforts require large amounts of time and creativity for even a minuscule chance of cracking either one of the ciphers.

The people who try to break these ciphers today are likely aware that they are nearly impossible to crack, and their motivation is probably not the wealth; there are many other ways to get wealthy if you are willing to put in that much time and effort. Rather, the reward they chase after is an intellectual one; they are hoping that, even by pure chance, in cracking the Beale cipher, they will be the first one to read his note, knowing that the knowledge it contains is entirely theirs until they decide to share it with the world. Even though the contents of the note are probably all related to the buried treasure which is of secondary importance, there is a unique appeal to being the first one to break a supposedly unbreakable cipher. The opportunity to become known as the person who did the impossible is tantalizing, and apparently to some, that satisfaction is worth chasing after no matter how unlikely it is that you will achieve it.

What we don’t know drives us

To understand why amateur and professional cryptanalysts alike have not given up on the Beale ciphers after hundreds of years, the reader must refer back to a quotation in the beginning of The Code Book. Singh so appropriately referenced John Chadwick in saying, “The urge to discover secrets is deeply ingrained in human nature.”

I believe the intrigue behind the Beale Ciphers is not as much motivated by the promise of literal tons of gold, but by the natural desire to discover the unknown. The prospect of an unbreakable code, that has duped some of the brightest minds of the past century, not only challenges, but insults those who feel the inclination towards discovery. It is the push for a higher understanding and a greater knowledge.

I experienced similar feelings at young age. As I was riding the subway in New York City on vacation with my family many years ago, I realized I could not understand anything being said around me. The car was packed with people of different ethnicities and backgrounds and the melting pot of tongues fascinated, as well as frustrated me. I had a desire to listen and understand. While none of what was being said around me were actual secrets, they were to my english only vocabulary.

I believe the reason I choose to study languages in school, is the same driving force behind cryptanalysts pursuit of the elusive Beale Ciphers. To some ignorance is bliss, but to most of us it is a constant nagging of what we lack in understanding.





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.

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.

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