Computer Helps Break Code, Revealing Secret Society

Reads like the DaVinci Code, but the story is true. It begins when Christiane Schaefer receives a coded book as a gift from an expert on ancient writings. Unable to decipher it, she puts the book aside.

Two pages of the Copiale Cipher
Pages 16 and 17 of the Manuscript

Fast forward 13 years to a con­fer­ence on com­pu­ters and lan­guage trans­lation. The featured speaker, Kevin Knight, uses computer code breaking techniques for language translation. He invited audience members to share long coded texts with him. Schaefer submitted her book.

Knight’s technique uses massive computing power, processing numerous guesses, analyzing which work best, continuously narrowing the results. The machine guessed the book’s original language was German. Knight interpreted the results and sent his conclusions to Schaefer.

Then Schaefer and her boss applied their knowledge of European languages and history. Schaefer’s boss guessed that one symbol, previously believed to be a lip, represented a human eye. That was the key, leading to the translation of Schaefer’s book and others written in the same code.

Thus decoded, the book describes an initiation rite of the Great Enlightened Society of Oculists, eighteenth century pioneers in ophthalmology who performed cataract surgery. But on further analysis, the researchers began to believe that the Oculists was a secret society, involved with Freemasonry, and that ophthalmology was just a cover. The problem is the translated text can be read at many levels, so that its literal translation may not reveal its true meaning. Thus its inner secrets are still preserved, at least for now.

The entire story, including a video interview with Knight and samples of the code, are on the Wired Magazine web site. A shorter account appeared in the New York Times. Knight, Megyesi and Schaefer have created a web site from which you can download source materials.

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Updated February 9, 2014.