Computer Coders Crack A German Secret Society’s Enigmatic Cipher
By on October 25th, 2011

The secret of the 75,000-character “Copiale Cipher” is finally out! The manuscript is an enigmatic cryptic document, meticulously encrypted by a group of people believed to belong to a 18th century secret German society. The characters are a mix of Roman letters and abstract symbols. It was finally broken by an international team of cryptographers.

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The cover of the Cipher

The Brute Force Approach … and “Complete Failure”

The manuscript, clad in a green and gold embroidered cover (pic above), was found in East Berlin Academy after the Cold War. Leading the effort was computer scientist Kevin Knight of USC Viterbi School of Engineering. He programmed his computer to track the occurrences of different commonly-occurring set of letters, aiming to find patterns and extract the grammar. The distribution of Roman and Greek characters was also a clue to the puzzle. Or so they thought.

As Knight says, this brute force approach,

 took quite a long time and resulted in complete failure


After many such frustrating efforts, they completely eliminated the Roman characters, realizing that these were meant to mislead. The team then painstakingly tried to associate modern German consonants and vowels to different symbols or symbol groups. This finally made sense. The first clear phrase in German meant: Ceremonies of Initiation. What better could you have hoped for when translating the text of a secret society?

Try Your Hand

We present a conversion table for the symbols.

Now, we present a few pages, just to give you a glimpse of what the cryptographers were up against!

First one:

Next one:

The last one

Notice the large number of Greek letters

Concluding Words

Knight, who is a world-renowned translation expert and coder extraordinaire, has designed many translation software packages that have been adopted by companies like Apple and Intel. He says:

Translation remains a tough challenge for artificial intelligence.

As long as the Babel fish doesn’t evolve or is not intelligently designed, speaking a completely abstract language shall remain a great human fascination.

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Image Credits: University of Southern California and Uppsala University,
Author: Debjyoti Bardhan Google Profile for Debjyoti Bardhan
Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

Debjyoti Bardhan has written and can be contacted at

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