The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Beale

Feeble Attempts

People say love is the most powerful force on Earth, and if that is the case, then the lure of money is an extremely close second. The Beale Papers basically gave an open invitation to a $20 million treasure (over $500 million in today’s money!) just with a catch– decipher some unbreakable ciphers. With that much money at stake and enough desperation, no task seems too large.

I agree with Singh’s conjecture that the entire story could be a made up ploy to profit off other’s greed. If this scenario were the case, the anonymous author would be humored to learn that in the 21st century, there are still individuals attempting to break the Beale Ciphers.

If professional cryptanalysts have been unable to decipher Beale’s message, what would cause the average Joe to believe he can? It’s not only the desire to find a gigantic sum of money, but also lust to be “first” or “special” or the best at something. One may be thinking If I decipher Beale’s code, I’ll be rich, AND everyone will know me as the smartest person ever! In addition, people often have a heightened sense of themselves, especially their personal skills. As a result, you get amateur and probably first time-codebreakers undertaking a task far beyond their abilities. It is important to realize when something is outside your limits. You can’t do calculus before knowing how to add, you can’t run a marathon without knowing how to walk, and you certainly can’t break an “unbreakable” cipher without extensive knowledge and practice with the subject.

Unbroken ciphers and their appeal


I think part of the allure is the chase. Rarely is there ever an unsolved mystery with such a big bounty. I think that people are drawn to both the mystery and the award. the same is true for unsolvable math problems. If you solve them you get fame and glory, but you also get the satisfaction of solving something that nobody on earth has solved before. I think another part of the Beale cipher is that you don’t necessarily have to be an expert cryptoanalyst to solve it if it is a book cipher. If anyone guesses what the book or text the cipher is based on, they will be able to solve the cipher with ease. This means that there is not a huge advantage to having an extensive background in cryptoanalysis. I think that there is also an advantage when something is unsolvable to have an outside perspective. It is entirely possible that all the cryptoanalysts approach the problem in a very similar manner, and they negate other ways to solve the problem. Someone with an outside view on the field may have an advantage because they might come up with a completely original way to solve a problem. This is why there is still a large allure to trying to solve an unsolvable problem like the Beale cipher.

The Allure of Money and Fame

The main reason that I believe people still pursuing Beale’s treasure because of the obvious reasons:fame and fortune. The allure of millions of dollars worth of gold laying around somewhere in Virginia is just too strong a temptation for most people to ignore, and those with the means and drive to actively search for it are going to because for most people, the outcome of finding the treasure is worth the effort. In addition to the monetary value of the treasure, claiming the Beale Treasure would result in fame across the country, the person that solved it would hailed as a modern Benjamin Gates (National Treasure, Nicholas Cage). The temptation of these two strong drive forces are powerful enough to get many people started, and the sensation that they are on the verge of discovering the treasure, much like the sensations a gambler feels when he hits a rough patch in his betting, is what keeps them at it.

Motivation Behind Cracking the Beale Ciphers

In my opinion, I think the main reason people are still trying to break the Beale Cipher is based on the 20 million dollars worth in gold that is supposedly buried. Money can make people do crazy things and people often won’t think about the thousands of other people that have tried and failed and the chance that there is no treasure to be found! Along with the fact that so much money is at stake, the second cipher was cracked using the Declaration of Independence so people probably feel like there is hope. If none of the three ciphers were cracked then less people would try probably. Some other people probably want to crack the code out of pure pride. Since so many people have tried and didn’t succeed, then if the cryptography world would give them a lot of respect.

Image “Fishpool gold coins” by Lawrence OP, Flickr (CC)

The Motivation of Mystery

The Beale Ciphers have challenged thousands of cryptanalysts for the past hundred years.  The Beale Ciphers consist of three ciphers and are seemingly unbreakable.  While most professionals would give up after several unsuccessful attempts, people still continue to try and break them.  The ciphers remain a mystery while hiding a very rewarding treasure.  The motivation to break these ciphers may simply lie in the wealth one could acquire if they cracked the ciphers.  However, the human mind is very curious, and with each uncovered step, our curiosity increases.  The Beale Ciphers possess a lure due to the fact that one of the ciphers has already been broken.  This has provided hope for current professionals and amateurs, making them believe that the key can be found.  On the other hand, history has shown that even the most difficult ciphers (i.e. the Great cipher) can be cracked.  People still attempt to break them because the fame associated with such a discovery would be equally as rewarding. Ultimately, these factors have kept the Beale Ciphers under constant scrutiny to this day, despite how difficult they are to solve.

Image “Keyhole” by StudioTempura, Flickr (CC)

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)

The Motivation Behind Beale’s Mystery

Contradictory to the recurring theme of cryptography, it seems as though a certain cipher shall remain impervious to the demystifying test of time. After 100 years of collective effort from professional and amateur cryptanalysts alike, the enticing Beale cipher continues to serve its cryptic purpose. Ironically, its renowned success in befuddling hundreds, if not thousands, of cryptanalysts has in turn attracted additional challengers up to the task of deciphering Beale’s $20 million message. While some cast doubt upon the letter’s authenticity, and others argue that given its authenticity the cipher may never be discovered, the puzzle continually baits the public’s fruitless efforts. But why try where so many others have failed?

Firstly, there exists a tangible reward of considerable value. The treasure as described by Beale is now estimated at a jaw-dropping $20 million – a lucrative reward for solving a single puzzle. Monetary compensation, however, seems a fanciful outcome given the chances that someone might have already discovered the cipher along with the money, or just as simply stumbled across the hidden treasure throughout the course of 100 years. Furthermore, money hardly stands as the driving force behind the efforts of professional intellectuals who presumably practice cryptography for the mystery rather than reward.

Therefore, we may assume that the attraction of a mystery, in most cases, is the mystery itself. Aside from the fame and whatever tangible compensation one receives from unwinding a mystery, personal satisfaction is the main reward. Mysteries lure by way of promising intellectual gratification and abatement of curiosity. Hundreds flock to the Beale ciphers not only for the possibility of gaining fortune, but for the sake of solution, and making order of the problematic, organized chaos that is cryptographic encryption. The Beale cipher presents a formidably reputable puzzle, and there will always be challenger driven by the curiosity of human nature.

Beale Cipher Continues to Confound Cryptographers

The Beale Cipher has, for many years, stumped the best and brightest cryptographers in their quest to not only decipher the text, but also discover the treasure behind it. Despite years of unsuccessful attempts to decipher the complex cryptography, many cryptanalysts continue to analyze the cipher Beale created. The fruitless efforts of many analysts must have a much deeper cause than a simple search for treasure.

The enigma of the Beale Cipher drives cryptanalysts to further pursue its deciphering. The motivation comes from the mystery that lies behind its message and its key. A sort of reverse psychology plays a role in its mystery. The cipher has been deemed unattainable to any that have tried it; yet, the inherit inability to solve it motivates other cryptanalysts to try and break it. Just as children who are told they should not touch the stove do it anyways, cryptanalysts regard the difficulty of the cipher not as a warning, but as a challenge.

In an attempt to define the motivation behind cryptanalysts’ quest, one must also consider our ever changing world. Each day, new technology emerges, developments in research are made, and new masterpieces are created. With this constantly developing society comes the social drive to outdo others’ achievements. While no one has yet solved the Beale cipher, cryptanalysts see the challenge as an opportunity to outdo their peers, using the technological advancements of today to drive their discovery.

Image “Bound to Make the Connection” by Jackson, Flickr (CC)

The Lure of The Beale Ciphers

The Beale Ciphers have stumped some of the greatest cryptographers for over a hundred years. The cipher is most likely based off of a piece of literature that serves as the key. This book or text may no longer exist and some believe that Beale himself may have written it. Despite this daunting history of the Beale Ciphers, people continue to try to decipher the letters to lead them to the treasure described in the second Beale letter. These people are incredibly motivated by wealth and fame. The idea of cracking a cipher that so many people have failed at is enticing, as is the promised reward of items worth millions of dollars. Curious treasure hunters, amateur and professional cryptographers can’t resist the urge to attempt the frustrating cipher.

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