Sunday, July 05, 2009


Thomas Jefferson is vying with Benjamin Franklin for my crush of the eighteenth century. But if we're taking National Treasure as a good starting point for historical research, which of course we should do because it is so awesome, BF probably devised perfect cryptograms all the time. (Actually, I've read a great non-Nicolas Cage book about Thomas Jefferson's and Erasmus Darwin's copying machines.) From the Wall Street Journal (thanks to Jaime for the link):
The key to the code consisted of a series of two-digit pairs. The first digit indicated the line number within a section, while the second was the number of letters added to the beginning of that row. For instance, if the key was 58, 71, 33, that meant that Mr. Patterson moved row five to the first line of a section and added eight random letters; then moved row seven to the second line and added one letter, and then moved row three to the third line and added three random letters. Mr. Patterson estimated that the potential combinations to solve the puzzle was "upwards of ninety millions of millions."

After explaining this in his letter, Mr. Patterson wrote, "I presume the utter impossibility of decyphering will be readily acknowledged."

Undaunted, Dr. Smithline decided to tackle the cipher by analyzing the probability of digraphs, or pairs of letters. Certain pairs of letters, such as "dx," don't exist in English, while some letters almost always appear next to a certain other letter, such as "u" after "q".

To get a sense of language patterns of the era, Dr. Smithline studied the 80,000 letter-characters contained in Jefferson's State of the Union addresses, and counted the frequency of occurrences of "aa," "ab," "ac," through "zz."

Labels: , , , ,