Yet another reason why Thomas Jefferson was awesome

July 7, 2009

Posted by Nick Sarno

Via tWSJ:

For more than 200 years, buried deep within Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence and papers, there lay a mysterious cipher — a coded message that appears to have remained unsolved. Until now.

The cryptic message was sent to President Jefferson in December 1801 by his friend and frequent correspondent, Robert Patterson, a mathematics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. President Jefferson and Mr. Patterson were both officials at the American Philosophical Society — a group that promoted scholarly research in the sciences and humanities — and were enthusiasts of ciphers and other codes, regularly exchanging letters about them.

In this message, Mr. Patterson set out to show the president and primary author of the Declaration of Independence what he deemed to be a nearly flawless cipher. “The art of secret writing,” or writing in cipher, has “engaged the attention both of the states-man & philosopher for many ages,” Mr. Patterson wrote. But, he added, most ciphers fall “far short of perfection.”

To Mr. Patterson’s view, a perfect code had four properties: It should be adaptable to all languages; it should be simple to learn and memorize; it should be easy to write and to read; and most important of all, “it should be absolutely inscrutable to all unacquainted with the particular key or secret for decyphering.”

Mr. Patterson then included in the letter an example of a message in his cipher, one that would be so difficult to decode that it would “defy the united ingenuity of the whole human race,” he wrote.

There is no evidence that Jefferson, or anyone else for that matter, ever solved the code. But Jefferson did believe the cipher was so inscrutable that he considered having the State Department use it, and passed it on to the ambassador to France, Robert Livingston.

To read the rest, and to see a cool interactive thingy, go here.

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3 Responses to “Yet another reason why Thomas Jefferson was awesome”

  1. sandy Says:

    This begs the question of why this blog is not written in some fancy cipher that will only be decrypted in 200 or so years.

  2. urbesque Says:

    Actually, I wasn’t going to announce this yet, but the first 1000 posts on this blog are, in fact, a cipher. What appears to be english is really an elaborate code which, when cracked, will produce the great American novel.

    So get working.

    –N

  3. sandy Says:

    i’ve been looking for a reason to start donning my Orphan Annie Decoder Ring.

    Reason found.


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