Computer scientist cracks mysterious 'Copiale Cipher'

October 25, 2011, University of Southern California
These are pages from the "Copiale Cipher," a mysterious cryptogram, bound in gold and green brocade paper, that was finally cracked by an international team of cryptographers. Credit: Courtesy University of Southern California and Uppsala University

The manuscript seems straight out of fiction: a strange handwritten message in abstract symbols and Roman letters meticulously covering 105 yellowing pages, hidden in the depths of an academic archive.

Now, more than three centuries after it was devised, the 75,000-character "Copiale Cipher" has finally been broken.

The mysterious cryptogram, bound in gold and green brocade paper, reveals the rituals and political leanings of a 18th-century secret society in Germany. The rituals detailed in the document indicate the secret society had a fascination with eye surgery and , though it seems members of the secret society were not themselves eye doctors.

"This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies," said computer scientist Kevin Knight of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, part of the international team that finally cracked the Copiale Cipher. " believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, and a big part of the reason is because so many documents are enciphered."

To break the Copiale Cipher, Knight and colleagues Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden tracked down the original manuscript, which was found in the East Berlin Academy after the Cold War and is now in a private collection. They then transcribed a machine-readable version of the text, using a computer program created by Knight to help quantify the co-occurrences of certain symbols and other patterns.

"When you get a new code and look at it, the possibilities are nearly infinite," Knight said. "Once you come up with a hypothesis based on your intuition as a human, you can turn over a lot of grunt work to the computer."

With the Copiale Cipher, the codebreaking team began not even knowing the language of the encrypted document. But they had a hunch about the Roman and Greek characters distributed throughout the manuscript, so they isolated these from the abstract symbols and attacked it as the true code.

"It took quite a long time and resulted in complete failure," Knight says.

After trying 80 languages, the cryptography team realized the Roman characters were "nulls," intended to mislead to reader. It was the abstract symbols that held the message.

The team then tested the hypothesis that abstract symbols with similar shapes represented the same letter, or groups of letters. Eventually, the first meaningful words of German emerged: "Ceremonies of Initiation," followed by "Secret Section."

For more information about the method of decipherment, visit

Knight is now targeting other coded messages, including ciphers sent by the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who sent taunting messages to the press and has never been caught. Knight is also applying his computer-assisted codebreaking software to other famous unsolved codes such as the last section of "Kryptos," an encrypted message carved into a granite sculpture on the grounds of CIA headquarters, and the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval document that has baffled professional cryptographers for decades.

But for Knight, the trickiest language puzzle of all is still everyday speech. A senior research scientist in the Intelligent Systems Division of the USC Information Sciences Institute, Knight is one of the world's leading experts on machine translation -- teaching computers to turn Chinese into English or Arabic into Korean. "Translation remains a tough challenge for artificial intelligence," said Knight, whose translation software has been adopted by companies such as Apple and Intel.

With researcher Sujith Ravi, who received a PhD in computer science from USC in 2011, Knight has been approaching translation as a cryptographic problem, which could not only improve human language translation but could also be useful in translating languages that are not currently spoken by humans, including ancient languages and animal communication.

Explore further: Computer automatically deciphers ancient language

More information: The Copiale Cipher work was presented as part of an invited presentation at the 2011 Association for Computational Linguistics meeting.

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3.7 / 5 (9) Oct 25, 2011
I expect that most fruitful approach will be to build a rigidly defined artificial language and use it as an intermediary between natural languages. This has worked in computer science and modeling.
2 / 5 (11) Oct 25, 2011
oh i tghought secret societies are invetion of cospiracy theorist and that they would manipulate revolutions


1 / 5 (4) Oct 25, 2011
Another code for you puzzle junkes.

1.9 / 5 (7) Oct 25, 2011
The Copiale Cipher, it is visually VERY attractive. But the people who wrote have been like us! They were posting, expressing their desire to share knowledge or opinion on ideas about which they wanted to know more...but...they had to ...hide?? It would appear that the 'miracle' of our age/day is the free flow of knowledge and its ready availability to the masses. WE encode/encrypt/Cipher to protect our identities/and Privileged data from the ever-increasing number of bad people who are always most abundant and well funded...hummm...could they have feared prosecution for pursuing their quest..?
word-to-ya-muthas (This means good bye, when decrypted :-)
3 / 5 (1) Oct 25, 2011
dschlink: You may be interested in "loglan" which was an artificial language invented in the 50's to try to understand whether languages could inhibit, or vice versa, expand human thinking. It also made a good language for human-computer interaction, although natural language programming has taken the center stage of late. I studied logan for several months and was somewhat astounded by the ways it changed the way I thought about things. Made me a bit pickier about logic and precision in using the english language.
4 / 5 (2) Oct 25, 2011
...also, it's successor language "lojban"
2.4 / 5 (8) Oct 25, 2011
its a cookbook!!!
2.5 / 5 (6) Oct 25, 2011
I expect that most fruitful approach will be to build a rigidly defined artificial language and use it as an intermediary between natural languages. This has worked in computer science and modeling.

This is an old idea but it runs into an obvious problem: ars you sure there is such a language? Or can be constructed even in principle, nevermind in practice?

Note that even projects in computing that you mention have consistently run into this problem - lack of one-to-ons correspondence between the different language paradigms. And that's in more or less formal, artificial computing languages.

Now throw in the [in]famous Chomsky's hypothesis and you are realt looking for trouble trying to devise such a universal intermediate language.
2.2 / 5 (10) Oct 25, 2011
pirouette's posting is the best.
GDM's is interesting.
210 is so far off the mark that it isn't even funny.
There are more secretive groups around now than ever before and sadly most of them are created by paranoid delusionals within our governments. People who, like terrorists, are control freaks and want to make everyone conform to their ideas.
Secrecy is always the tool of those who mean ill to others.
So let us hear it for the decryptors.
3 / 5 (8) Oct 26, 2011
When they finally decypher the Voynich Manuscript they will realise the effort I have had to undertake to hide my theory of Repulsive Neutron from the dread Illuminati, it is not gibberish that I speak but a very carefully constructed code that makes what ever I say seem the ravings of an compleat Moron. My future self has assured me of my eventual construction of a time travelling vehicle using Repellent Neutronium as it power source, with this conveyance I will seed histories with my "Chron-Retarded" brilliance so that future generations from both our future and past will have the chance to Bathe in my Majestic imbecility.

The power of Neutrons Repels you
The power of Neutrons Repels you
2.3 / 5 (6) Oct 26, 2011
A German state in the 1700's would not have been any more 'secure' than Germany in the 1800s, In fact "A striking fact of the German state created in 1871 was its lack of religious unity, which was partly an outcome of the failed national centralization since the Thirty Years War. Whereas rulers in France, Russia, and England had strived toward, and nearly reached, religious homogeneity by siding with one church and persecuting other religions (often with great brutality), the Bismarckian empire contained about one third Catholics and two thirds mostly Lutheran Protestants.
To be sure, religion mattered less in 1871 than in previous centuries, but it still outlined deep cultural differences." Germany has struggled to be a united state until the Berlin Wall fell. European politics was ruled by major powers and the church and those states made the laws legal. In the 19th century, Europeans and Americans were still 'burning witches' and science was heresy! Only the guilds and masons....
2.3 / 5 (6) Oct 26, 2011
Provided SOME shelter for advancing what would stop being Alchemy and sorcery and become real science. No, I suspect these early adherents of science may have feared persecution and dwelled underground. Much as the early Christians in Rome literally lived underground and developed their own signs and insignia. The Christian faith was revolutionary, the admission of science was/is revolutionary and both were persecuted right into Greatness! Secrecy is sometimes necessary: Stalin, Hitler, Saddam, Khaddafi, all tried to destroy both secrecy and privacy by using, a SECRET security element and a PRIVATE police force, duh! Today, in China, the Falung Dong are persecuted and forced underground, their cause is swelling and growing. Those who penned the Copiale Cipher, would be proud of what they see today. Eye glasses, contacts, laser eye surgery, retina and optic nerve implants, soon - eyes repaired by stem cell regeneration. Question science and religion, but, do NOT hate!
5 / 5 (1) Oct 26, 2011
Kudos to the cryptographers!
The challenge in computerized translation (as is apparent to users of Babelfish) is that 'meaning' requires more than just equivocating words and phrases between two languages. Grammatical structures (as is well known to any student of Latin) can massively complicate meanings, adding layers of subtlety that are best interpreted through a lifelong familiarity with the language.
Even 'translating' spoken English into written English (or vice versa) has its pitfalls. The text cannot carry nuances of verbal inflection, and speech without punctuation often has trouble with complex sentence structures.
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 26, 2011
As someone who fluently speaks 3 languages, plus 2 more on the so-so or "passable" level, I will only believe in AI machine translator if and when we can talk and discuss the niceties of the said translation issues without any undue regard to the fact that one of us is a machine.
not rated yet Oct 29, 2011
"Computer scientist cracks mysterious 'Copiale Cipher'"

"Viterbi School of Engineering"

I see what you did there...

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