Cryptologists: they were decisive in turning the tide in World War II by breaking the Enigma code and today they are sought after by all the major world powers. The ability to crack hidden codes and ciphers is a valuable commodity. The ability to create these same ciphers and codes is also a highly prized skill. Over the generations, the best cryptologists in the world, some professional and some talented amateurs, have still found some of history’s most famous codes to be unbreakable. Some of these codes may be hoaxes, totally unsolvable as they were never meant to be. Trying to ascertain which are genuine and which are fake is a monumental task. Even if a fraction of the world’s uncrackable codes are indeed bogus, the others still amount to a challenge that has yet to be met – even with today’s super computers.
Just think of what that means. Ancient Egyptians created a highly complex form of writing in hieroglyphics. It was baffling to scientists at first, until the Rosetta stone shed light on the language and allowed us to solve the ancient mystery. Since that time, we’ve been able to unravel other dead languages and decipher many ancient codes and ciphers. The sheer brain power possessed worldwide committed to these endeavors is astounding. However, there still remain those elusive few that continue to be uncracked and, most likely, will stay that way for the foreseeable future. Now, let’s take a look at, in no particular order, 15 of the most famous uncrackable codes that currently have the world’s best baffled!
15. Tamám Shud
You might not have heard of this one, but it’s quite famous in law enforcement circles. It’s a mystery that began with the discovery of a slip of paper found in the pocket of a dead man. In December, 1948, the body of a well-dressed gentleman, referred to as the Somerton Man, was discovered on a beach in Adelaide, Australia. He had no visible signs of trauma and even now we don’t know how he died. He had no identification and attempts to learn his identity have failed even to this day.
A dead “John Doe” is, in itself, not a history-making mystery; it happens more than you think. What makes the case strange is that police found, in a small inside pants pocket, a scrap of torn paper with the words “Tamám Shud,” Persian for “Ended,” or “Finished.” The torn piece of paper was traced to a copy of a book titled, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. That book was found in the back seat of an unlocked car on the night of the murder, near a location that the dead man was believed to have visited before his demise. In the back of the book, investigators found five lines of coded letters, written in pencil. It was a short cipher, which makes it incredibly difficult to decode. For over sixty years, investigators have struggled with the code’s meaning and why, and how, the man’s deceased body was found on the beach. There has been some speculation that maybe he was a spy on a mission that went awry. Others believe he ingested some sort of undetectable poison and committed suicide, leaving a coded suicide note as some sort of legacy. We may never know as authorities are no closer to solving this case now than they were in 1948.
14. The Zodiac Killer
The Zodiac Killer is perhaps the most infamous serial killer in the United States, possibly due to the fact that he was never caught. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Zodiac stalked northern California claiming as many as thirty-seven victims, seven confirmed. During this period, he sent authorities a series of four cryptograms. One, a 408-character cipher, was solved quickly and it explained his passion for killing. Investigators attempted to use what they learned from that first cipher, the Z408, in an attempt to decode the others but, unfortunately, no similar pattern could be discerned.
Zodiac continued to taunt police, with each additional coded letter claiming that solving the letters would prevent further deaths and even help catch him. However, each coded letter proved uncrackable. In one 1970 letter, Zodiac added a hint at the bottom stating, “P.S. The Mt. Diablo code concerns Radians +# inches along the radians.” Years later, an examination of this hint led one researcher to discover that if you placed a radian angle over a specific part of a California map, it pointed to the locations of two of Zodiac’s attacks. Authorities stopped receiving letters from Zodiac in 1974. The case remains open but inactive and those codes still remain unsolved.
13. The McCormick Cipher
In June, 1999, the partly decomposed body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick was discovered in a field in eastern Missouri. Inside his pockets, police found two encrypted notes. At first, this wasn’t a shock, as many knew that Ricky was known to have written codes since his childhood. Police did not suspect foul play, and there were no motives or suspects. McCormick was disabled and suffered from severe health issues, leaving his death to be ruled as a non-criminal matter. Initially, law enforcement found nothing suspicious about the death except for the notes. The cipher was remarkably complex, consisting of letters, numbers, and symbols arranged in thirty lines. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was unable to crack the code and unlock their meaning.
Then, in March 2011, for reasons unknown, the FBI announced that they now believed McCormick was murdered, publicly revealing the existence of the coded letters. The FBI asked for the public’s assistance in solving the difficult cipher and put the coded letters on the internet for viewing. They received a strong response with numerous amateur and professional code breakers giving it a try. To date, no one has been successful.
12. The Rohonc Codex
The 1800s discovery of the Rohonc Codex has led to more than 200 years of unsuccessful attempts at trying to decipher it or figuring out who wrote it. Originally found in Hungary, it is believed to have been part of the personal library of Count Gusztáv Batthyány. The Codex appears to have been written during the medieval period. The text resembles Old Hungarian script and is utterly indecipherable, with its meaning and origin a complete mystery. Many scholars over the centuries have examined the Codex in an effort to unlock its secrets, but it continues to generate more questions than answers.
Of the immense text, 448 pages have been transcribed, reading from right to left, containing distinctive symbols that total ten times higher than any known alphabet in history. Many scholars and paleography experts agree that the Codex appears to be a religious text, due to the illustrations and symbols reflecting Christian, Muslim, and pagan iconography. This has been construed to mean that, whatever culture created the Codex, the three religions must have coexisted. Some believe it must be a hoax and complete indecipherable nonsense. But, even if it is, the patterns of the text do follow the same associations as authentic language.
11. The Indus or Harappan Script
Discovered in 1875, this script began appearing on artifacts uncovered throughout the area that was once Mesopotamia. The artifacts are widely believed to be from the elusive Indus civilization that flourished about 4,500 years ago along what is now the eastern Pakistan border. However, practically no historical information exists about the Indus people or their culture. Archaeologists started finding these artifacts, about 4,000 total-to-date, that included amulets, seals, and ceramic tablets, many adorned with any number of the 500 distinct Indus symbols identified. These symbols appear to depict representations of men, cow’s heads, fish, and rings.
Their discovery has led many scholars to argue that these symbols form the basis of a primitive language. As of now, no one has been able to decipher the script but, using an advanced computer program, scholars have compared the Indus script with symbols of known languages. Some results show the symbols to be random, but other artifacts have revealed different results, indicating that there is some order and pattern to how the symbols are arranged. This tends to lend credence to the theory that the script could be reflecting a proto-Dravidian spoken language, the forebear of the languages spoken today in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Malaysia. More analysis is needed before scholars will be able to decipher the language, if they ever do. For now, the Indus civilization remains a mystery.
10. D’Agapeyeff Cipher
In 1939, Alexander D’Agapeyeff, a Russian-born English cartographer and cryptographer, wrote a basic book on cryptography called Codes and Ciphers. At the end of the book, D’Agapeyeff offered up what he called a “challenge cipher.” The Cipher text only appeared in the first edition and was omitted in subsequent editions. It remains unsolved even today.
D’Agapeyeff was an experienced cartographer, but still very new to cryptography when he wrote his book. The author himself even admitted later that he had forgotten how he actually encrypted it. He also acknowledges that it is entirely possible that some of the cipher text characters are what he refers to as “nulls,” dummy characters inserted into the cipher to make decoding extremely difficult unless you know which characters they are. Different approaches have been used in trying to break the code but so far none have been successful. Some have even argued that the failure to decrypt the cipher is due to D’Agapeyeff incorrectly encrypting the original text. In his book, D’Agapeyeff gives an example of a cipher called a Polybius square, which looks remarkably similar to his “challenge cipher.” Even though he shows explicitly how to solve such a cipher, no one has been able to solve his for almost 80 years.
Kryptos is a sculpture that stands on grounds of the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia. It was created by American artist James Sanborn, with assistance from former CIA cryptographer Ed Scheidt, and dedicated on November 3, 1990. Kryptos contains an encrypted message in four sections that has been the subject of much speculation. Numerous CIA cryptographers and amateur code breakers have attempted to decipher its meaning but all have failed.
On half of the main sculpture, the cipher text contains 869 characters; however, Sanborn revealed in 2006 that an intended letter is missing. This means that the total cipher on that side should be 870 characters. The other half of the sculpture contains a Vigenère encryption tableau, comprised of 869 characters, counting spaces. The first person to publicly solve the first three sections was a computer scientist named James Gillogly in 1999. He deciphered 768 characters, but was stumped on the remaining 97 or 98 characters that comprised the fourth section, known as “K4.” That last section is the part that has stumped the U.S. government’s best analysts for over two decades. Experts have used letter substitution, intentional misspellings, jumbled letter algorithms, and complex mathematical formulas and have all come up with nada! If you’re looking to get noticed by the CIA, be the one to solve this enigma!
8. Shugborough Hall Inscription
At stately Shugborough Hall, located in Staffordshire, England, is the Shepherd’s Monument. On this monument is a relief that depicts a woman watching three shepherds pointing to a tomb. The tomb is inscribed in Latin, “Et in Arcadia ego,” or “I am also in Arcadia.” The relief is based on a well-known painting by Nicholas Poussin, called, wouldn’t you know it, “Et in Arcadia ego;” however, the relief has been modified from the original. The depiction has been reversed horizontally, and one of the shepherds is pointing at a different letter of the tomb. There is also an extra sarcophagus in the relief, placed on top of the one with the Latin phrase. Below the image on the monument, these letters were added: “D O.U.O.S.V.A.V.V. M.”
Nobody knows what it all means. The monument was built in the mid-18th century and, over the years, a popular belief is that the code holds a clue to the location of the Holy Grail. This is based on claims that Poussin was a member of the Priory of Sion. Others over the years have posited their own solutions to the apparent random letters. Some believe that the letters represent the initials of distinguished former residents of the Hall, a Latin acrostic for a Biblical verse, or possibly that they represent some important string of numbers. Can’t figure it out? Don’t worry, you’re in good company. Both Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin attempted to solve the riddle of the Shugborough Hall inscription and came up stumped. It appears to be up to future generations to solve this mysterious inscription.
7. Chinese Gold Bar Cipher
The International Association for Cryptologic Research was contacted years ago with regards to some gold bars whose ownership was in dispute. Reportedly, in 1933, seven gold bars were issued to a General Wang, in Shanghai, China. These gold bars represent certificates of deposit with a bank located in the United States. The gold bars are intricately adorned with pictures, Chinese writing, some unknown script, and cryptograms in Latin. There is some dispute over the legitimacy of the deposit claim as no one can decipher the gold bars’ cryptograms. The Chinese writing was translated and talks of a transaction in the area of $300,000,000. The writing also lists the weight of the gold bars at a total of 1.8 kilograms.
The “General Wang” in question is also a mystery as no full name is given. There is a pictogram of him on one of the gold bars, but no historians can make out a resemblance. Some believe it may be referring to General Wang Sheng, who was instrumental in easing the transition of the gold-backed Chin-yan Chuan currency in China after World War II, however, in 1933 he was not yet a general. Some believe the gold bars were created as some sort of post-World War II hoax or possibly political propaganda. We may never know as many have tried unsuccessfully to unravel the mystery of the Chinese gold bars.
Chaocipher was created by a man named John F. Byrne in 1918, which he then used in an attempt to sell the system to the U.S. State, War, and Navy Departments after World War I. The encryption device was small and consisted of simply two small rotating disks that could fit in a cigar box. The government wasn’t interested leaving Byrne frustrated. He maintained the solution was simple and even offered a reward for anyone who could solve the code; many tried but the reward was never claimed. In 1953, Byrne, who was a lifelong friend of James Joyce, wrote his autobiography, Silent Years, devoting the final chapter to discussing the cipher.
In 1989, John Byrne, son of the creator, demonstrated Chaocipher to two editors from the cryptography journal, Cryptologia, and revealed to them the solution. They were sworn to secrecy and never divulged the answer. Finally, in May 2010, the Byrne family donated all Chaocipher-related materials to the National Cryptologic Museum in Ft. Meade, Maryland. This eventually led to the disclosure of the algorithm that solved the code. So technically, the code has been broken; however, this was only after the solution was revealed. For over 90 years, no one was ever able to actually solve Chaocipher and it remained unbreakable until the family gave up the secret.
5. The Dorabella Cipher
On July 14, 1897, 40-year old English composer Edward Elgar sent an encrypted letter to his much-younger 22-year-old lady friend Dora Penny, nicknamed Dorabella, stepdaughter of his friend, Reverend Alfred Penny. Elgar was fascinated by codes, puzzles and ciphers, and created one that has lasted over a hundred years. No doubt, the original text is less than earth shattering and probably simply a pleasant note from one friend to another. However, the fact that the cipher used in the note has yet to be cracked is what gives it prominence. It is a mystery and a challenge that many have attempted to solve but none seem to have.
The cipher consists of 87 characters all made of strings of semi-circles sloping in different directions. Being that the cipher is very short, it is extremely difficult to solve. In longer ciphers, unusual letters or letter pairs are more easily identified, but with a short cipher, there may be only one example of a particular character or even some letters not being represented at all. One theory is that the cipher is simply an example of a private code shared between Edward and Dorabella. If that’s true, solving the cipher may be almost impossible, since it probably contains references that no one would understand except them.
4. Beale Ciphers
It all began in 1885, when a small pamphlet was published in Virginia. It told the story of a man named Beale and contained three encrypted messages. The story goes that around 1820, Beale buried two wagons that were loaded full of treasure at a secret location in Bedford County, Virginia. He then gave a small lockbox to a local innkeeper and promptly left town, never to be heard from again. After many years, the innkeeper opened the lockbox and found the three encrypted messages. He was never able to decode them and left them to a friend when he passed away in 1863.
For the next twenty years, the unnamed friend tried to decipher the messages, being able to solve only one. That decoded message told of the loads of gold, silver, and jewels that Beale buried as well as the general location of where it can be found. The remaining encrypted messages reportedly contain the exact directions to where the treasure can be found and to whom it supposedly belonged. In the years since, many have tried to decode the remaining messages and even more have tried unsuccessfully to search for the treasure. There are some who have claimed to have solved the cipher but they have all been baseless, usually trying to hawk some code book and none have demonstrated a verified decryption algorithm.
3. Linear A
Crete was the crown jewel of the Minoan civilization that thrived in around 2000 BCE. The Minoans developed what were probably the first written systems in Europe, those being Cretan Hieroglyphs and Linear A. Visually very different from each other, the two systems are believed to have been used for different purposes. Linear A was discovered by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and has been dubbed the Minoan language. Linear A appeared to be very similar to the later language of the Mycenaean Greeks, referred to as Linear B. In 1952, Linear B was deciphered, leading many to believe that it was only a matter of time before the same decryption method would lead to unlocking the meaning of Linear A.
Linear A contains about 90 symbols, and shares some symbols with Linear B, which has led to some success in interpreting the language. However, using the same syllable association of Linear B to decode Linear A produces words that were unintelligible and unrelated to any known language. It became apparent that Linear A was not representative of a Greek language like Linear B. Researchers are still optimistic that the similarities between the two scripts could be the key to unlocking the language of Linear A.
2. Voynich Manuscript
Believed to be over 400 years old, this 240-page tome contains intricate illustrations and diagrams, all organized into several sections; including herbal, astronomical, biological, cosmological, and pharmaceutical. Incredible! The catch is that it is written in a language that is totally baffling! Found by rare-book dealer Wilfrid Voynich in 1912, the manuscript contains text arranged in a series of paragraphs totaling 170,000 characters and 30 glyphs. The text was written naturally, with confidence, and shows no sign of errors or pauses, indicating that whoever wrote it was comfortable with the language. Carbon dating puts the manuscript as being written between 1404 and 1438, but by whom or in what language is unknown.
A careful examination of the illustrations reveals drawings of unidentified plants, as well as small people wearing some sort of bizarre plumbing-like machinery. There are many who believe the manuscript is a hoax. Over the years, many professional and amateur cryptographers – including the great William Friedman – have tried to decipher the language, but all have come up with nothing. Friedman, one of the 20th century’s greatest cryptographers, studied the manuscript extensively and believes it is an intelligent, constructed, artificial language, following a pattern distinct from any other European languages. It appears to contain an alphabet ranging from 19 to 28 letters, with an average word length similar to Greek or Latin-based languages. The fact that it has remained uncracked, even in the face of so many clues, has earned the Voynich Manuscript a place of honor in historical cryptology.
1. Cicada 3301
Cicada 3301 is not so much an undeciphered code as it is an uncracked enigma. Cicada 3301 is a mysterious internet-based organization with a history of online puzzles and codes. Since 2012, they have posted many riddles and ciphers online without making any references as to their purpose or reasoning. No one knows who they are, or if they are even a group, as “they” are possibly just a single person. It all began on January 5, 2012, when an anonymous user posted a steganography clue to an online chat board. The image stated that Cicada 3301 was seeking out “intelligent” people to add to their ranks. The image contained a clue that necessitated the use of a Caesar cipher, as well as a specific level of technical expertise. The solving of that clue led to further puzzles and codes that require specialized skill-sets to solve, leading those who attempt it on a scavenger hunt of sorts across the nation.
Some believe the puzzles are unsolvable; however, this is not true. Several have broken the codes and solved the puzzles and have reportedly received emails from Cicada 3301. Still, none have come forward to divulge the nature of their recruitment. It is entirely possible that Cicada 3301 is simply another cyber group – like Anonymous – or maybe a recruiting initiative for an intelligence agency, such as MI6 or the CIA. Whatever their goal, they must have succeeded, as they posted a statement that they were successful in their recruitment activities. Then, in January 2013, and again in January 2014, they began again. It is entirely possible that these codes are just an entertaining endeavor by a group of hackers sitting in a basement, although, to many, solving the codes of Cicada 3301 is an internet honor worthy of the effort.