18-century Code Cracked

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Machine translation is probably not a good choice for your business. However, in the right hands it can be quite useful. A case in point: researchers from the University of Southern California and Uppsala University in Sweden just used a machine translation program described as being similar to Google Translate to crack an 18th-century cipher that has been bedevilling linguists for centuries.

The code, known as the Copiale Cipher, was used by an 18-century German secret society to protect their rituals and teachings. It has resisted attempts at translation since it was discovered at the end of the cold war. In other words, eat your heart out, Dan Brown!

To crack the code, the team first had to transcribe all of the symbols into a machine-readable format. Then, they let their computer analyse the document, looking at first for meaningful correlations amongst the Greek and Roman letters sprinkled throughout the text.

Even with the computer’s help, computer scientist Kevin Knight said, “It took quite a long time and resulted in complete failure.”

As it turns out, it was the abstract, seemingly nonsensical characters that held the meaning. Once the translation team realized that, it was only a matter of time before they cracked the code.

What dark, mysterious secrets was this occult sect protecting with their code? Information about living descendants of Jesus Christ? The long-sought-out formula for the elixir of eternal life? Nope. Once the translation was complete, it turned out that they were somewhat obsessed with ophthalmology and eye surgery. Weird.

However, the successful translation effort has broader implications for scholars. In a statement issued for the press, Knight explained,

“This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies. Historians 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.”