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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sources: historicmysteries.com, ancient-origins.net, ciphermysteries.com, ancientscripts.com, listverse.com, wired.com, theguardian.com.
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