The 10 most badass secret codes in history (and how to crack them)

In the words of Edgar Allen Poe “human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve”

Theact of creating secret messages has probably been around for as farback as humans have existed and communicated, secret codes have beenused in wartime, in business and in personal affairs to concealeverything from battle plans and assassination plots to dodgy deals andillicit love affairs.

The process of cracking these codes hascaused major headaches for intelligence officers and cryptologiststhroughout the ages, even turning some people insane whilst trying todo so. Indeed, a code maker may believe that their code is unbreakable,but some of the most complex of coding systems have in fact beendeciphered, changing the course of mankind in the process.

The following are 10 of the most badass secret codes in history.

1. The Caesar Cipher

Oneof the easiest codes to crack has to be the Caesar Cipher, which wasused by Julius Ceasar whenever he wanted to send a secret message abouthis military plans and intentions. In reality, it didn’t really have tobe particularly complex back then as most people couldn’t read anywaybut nevertheless, he still found it necessary to take precautions.

The Caesar Cipher is basically a simple system whereby each letter of the alphabet is shifted by three places. For example:


Soif we wanted to encode the words “secret message” we would transposeeach letter and come up with “vhfuhw phvvdkh”. The recipient, whoobviously had to be aware of the code, would simply transpose theletters back to read the message. The Caesar Cipher or Caesar Shift hassince been used to describe any method of encryption where there isthis kind of displacement of the alphabet.

2. Cardan Grilles

ACardan Grille was a method of hiding messages first used by GerolamoCardano back in 1550. Rather than an encrypted message, which actuallylooks like a code, by using a Cardan Grille you can create a secretmessage that doesn’t stand out in any way so no one realises there is ahidden message at all, except of course the sender and the intendedrecipient. Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) and Cardinal Richelieu (1585– 1642) are just two prominent figures in history who were known to befond of using Cardan Grilles. So how does it work?

You caneasily create a Cardan Grille yourself using a simple piece ofcardboard where you then cut out squares and rectangles at intervals sothat they can act as a stencil in which you can write letters or wordsthat make up your secret message. By placing the cardboard over a pieceof paper you can then write your secret message in the spaces. When youlift the cardboard off you simply make up the rest of the text so thatit doesn’t look like a secret message, more like an innocent note orletter. All the decoder has to do is have an identical bit ofcardboard, or grille, which they then place over the text and all willbe revealed.

Theskill in creating a secret message using this method is in how well youcan make the whole text flow so that it doesn’t look like a codedmessage or out of place in any way. An obvious disadvantage is if thegrille itself is lost, stolen, or falls into the wrong hands.

3. Mary Queen of Scots and the Babington Plot

Oneexample of using coded messages which had drastic implications for thecourse of history was the Babington Plot concerning Queen Elizabeth.The cracking of the code used in this plot is what led to the beheadingof Mary Queen of Scots in February 1587. So what happened?

Maryand her conspirators wrote letters to each other using a system ofsubstituted letters and symbols in place of the real letters of thealphabet with a few red herrings thrown in where some symbols andletters had no meaning at all and were put there just to throw peopletrying to decipher the code off the track.

Mary was alreadyheld captive by Queen Elizabeth when she received a coded letter fromSir Anthony Babington basically asking her to condone the assassinationof Elizabeth. She replied using the secret code and her letters weresmuggled out in barrels of beer.

Unbeknownto Mary, there was a double agent at work who had connections with bothMary’s secretary who helped encode the letters and Sir FrancisWalsingham, head of an intelligence operation who had enlisted theservices of Thomas Phelippes, a master code breaker who was also fluentin many languages.

All of Mary’s letters were passed straightto Phelippes who not only deciphered Mary’s code, he also added to herletters asking for the names of all the supporters of the plot beforesending the letters on. Each person involved in the plot was thencaptured and dealt with. The letters were damning for Mary as theyprovided irrefutable proof that she was plotting to assassinateElizabeth. Mary’s death warrant was signed on 1st February 1587 and shewas executed a week later. Who knows what might have happened if hercode hadn’t been cracked.

4. The Vigenère Cipher

Nowwe come to a code that is a little more difficult to crack. TheVigenère Cipher was invented by Frenchman Blaise de Vigenère in the16th Century using a polyalphabetic system of encryption. This meansthe code cannot be cracked using frequency analysis as the same letterappearing in the message can be encrypted with a different letter eachtime it appears.

First of all the alphabet is placed in a gridand in each subsequent row the alphabet shifts one place across, muchlike the Ceasar Cipher except that this time it happens over and overagain so we have many alphabets. A key word is used, which is writtenacross the top of the grid as many times as necessary. You can then usethe first letter of your key word to look down the grid to find thecorresponding letter of the alphabet for the first letter of yourmessage and then look across for the encrypted letter.

TheVigenère Cipher took over 200 years to crack, a feat that was finallyaccomplished by British cryptographer Charles Babbage in 1854.

5. ADFGX Cipher

Thisis possibly one of the most famous ciphers of all, invented by ColonelFritz Nebel in the early part of the 20th Century. It was used by theGermans during World War 1. Initially only the letters ADFGX but laterthe letter V was added to enable full use of the alphabet. Theseparticular letters were used simply because they sounded very differentto each other when used in Morse code.

Firstof all the letters ADFGX are placed in a Polybius square along the toprow and down the first column. The remaining squares are randomlyfilled in with the letters of the alphabet. The code could be made evenmore complex by the additional use of key words to transpose theletters and then these key words could be changed on a daily basis.Despite the difficulty involved in cracking this code, it was indeedunscrambled by Captain Georges-Jean Painvin enabling the French to foila planned attack by the Germans in June 1918.

6. The Navajo “code talkers”

Duringworld war 2 when Japan was basically cracking every code the Americanscame up with, a more elaborate coding system was needed if importantsecret messages were to get passed on to the right people without beingintercepted and unscrambled by the enemy. The answer came in the formof the Navajo code talkers.

Philip Johnston, son of amissionary, had grown up on a Navajo Indian reservation and came upwith the idea that if these Native Americans were enlisted as codetalkers, no one would be able to decode the messages. Not only werethere no words in the Navajo language for military terms, the languagewas unwritten and less than 30 people outside of the Navajoreservations could even speak it and not one of them was Japanese.

Around450 Military terms were associated with words already existing in theNavajo language such as the Navajo word for Hummingbird which became acode for fighter plane and iron fish for submarine. For other words,the code talker would translate the Navajo word into the Englishequivalent using the memorised Navajo code talker’s dictionary and thenuse the first letter to spell an English word. In this way, the Navajoswere able to transmit and receive radio and telephone messages thatconfounded anyone who happened to be eavesdropping.

Initiallyonly a handful of Navajo Indians were recruited but the whole operationwas so successful that by the end of the war more than 400 NavajoIndians were working as code talkers, helping to win battles such asthe ones at Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal.

7. Enigma

DuringWorld War 2 the Germans had their best weapon against the allied forcesin the form of a machine that looked a lot like a typewriter, or theEnigma as it was known. Rotating wheels basically replaced every letterwith another letter so the same letter did not have the samesubstitution letter as the wheels moved again before the next letterwas encoded. This meant for example that the letter A would not havethe same substituted letter throughout the text and neither would B, Cand so on. This is just a very simple explanation as the mechanisms ofthe machine were much more complicated than what can be explained here.

In order to decipher a message sent using Enigma, the receiverhad to have their machine set up in exactly the same way that themessage sender had set up theirs using the same settings for therotors, which of course changed all the time. The ability to crack theEnigma code was thought to be impossible. But it was cracked and here’show.

First of all the Polish who were stuck between the Germansand the Russians were gathering as much intelligence as they could andseveral brilliant Polish mathematicians managed to create a machinethat could decipher three quarters of what the Germans were saying.That was until the Germans changed the way they used Enigma. Now thePolish were stuck. They decided to pass on what they knew to Britishand French intelligence who were in a word, flabbergasted, at what thePoles had already managed to do on their own.

This newinformation along with some captured enigma machines finally enabledthe British at Bletchley Park in the UK to build a new machinealtogether known as the “Bombe” that was finally able to crack theEnigma code. Consequently they found out what the Germans were doing,where they planned to attack and how they were going to do it. There isno doubt that the breaking of the Enigma code changed the course ofhistory and what was learned at Bletchley Park became instrumental inthe creation of computers that would later transform the way we liveour lives on a day to day basis.

8. The Da Vinci Code

Nowfor something a little different. Many believe that Leonardo Da Vincileft messages and secret signs hidden in his paintings, the basis ofwhich inspired the best selling book by Dan Brown and subsequentblockbuster film The Da Vinci Code, which has sparked a renewedinterest in Da Vinci and what he might have been trying to say. But washe really trying to tell us anything?

Take the famous Mona Lisasmile as an example, this simple smile has been analysed, contemplatedand written about by some of the most famous scholars in the art world.It seems the edges of the mouth might have been deliberately smudged tolook out of focus so that depending on which way you look at Mona Lisa,her smile will change. What is that about? Some go as far as to say theMona Lisa is actually a self portrait of Da Vinci, obscured to hide thetruth to all but the most probing of eyes and of course minds.

Noone can really be sure if Da Vinci was revealing the truth by hiding itbut one thing is certain, Da Vinci wrote all his notes backwards inmirror style, which would indicate that he was no stranger to theconcept of obscuring messages, not in such a way as to make themundecipherable of course as anyone could hold up backward writing to amirror and read it clearly, but maybe that in itself is a clue.

Whatabout Da Vinci’s painting of the last supper? The person sitting on theright side of Jesus is commonly thought to be John the Baptist,however, many believe it is actually Mary Magdalane and not John, andanyone who looks at it could hardly deny the feminine characteristicsthat make Mary the more plausible candidate. Do we have Da Vincisuggesting that Mary Magdalane meant much more and played a muchgreater part in the life of Jesus than the history books would suggest?

Perhapsone way to get an insight into Da Vinci is through one of his mostfamous drawings ever, that of the Da Vinci Man or “Vitruvian Man”.We’ve all seen it; it is the image of a naked man with arms and legsoutstretched inside a circle and a square, a kind of code that explainshow life and nature work together. Da Vinci believed that anunderstanding of this would transform humanity. Underneath the drawinghe wrote notes, in mirror image of course. Interestingly, Leonardo saidhimself that man bridges the gap between the physical and the spiritualworld or did he mean the seen and the unseen?

9. Nostradamus

Howcould we write about secret codes and messages and not include thewritings of Nostradamus. Nostradamus is possibly the most unique of allthe so called prophets as he managed to achieve fame in his ownlifetime, such was the uncanny accuracy of his predictions. Theprophecies of Nostradamus continues to inspire, baffle and even terrifypeople today but as yet, not one single person has managed tosuccessfully decipher the writings of Nostradamus despite the fact thatmany people claim to have done so.

Michel de Nostradamus wroteall his “quatrains” or verses consisting of 4 lines and in blocks of100 called “centuries”, each of which was written in code. To be moreprecise, he developed a way of obscuring what he meant by using playson words, a mixture of other languages, symbolism and metaphors andmixing letters around making it virtually impossible to decipher thetrue meaning of his words, possibly to avoid accusations of heresy bythe Inquisition.

Some of the events that were allegedlyforetold by Nostradamus were the great fire of London, the rise ofHitler, the assassination of president Kennedy and more recently, the9/11 attack on the twin towers.

As Nostradamus wrote in suchan obscure fashion, it is not possible to translate the textaccurately; particularly when we take into consideration that he usedanagrams and many other techniques to cloud the true meaning. This isjust one of the quatrains that is said to predict the attack on thetwin towers. So what is it saying?

Ennofigee feu du centre de terre
Fera trembler au tour de Cite Neufve
Deux grandrochiers log repsferont la guerre
Puis Arethufa rougira nouveau fleuue

Roughlyspeaking it does mention an earthshaking fire from the centre of theearth that will cause trembling around the new city. It also talks oftwo large rocks and a war. However, the rest has to be made to fit theevent. Some translations on the Internet say that it mentions New Yorkspecifically. This is not true, even if the new city could mean NewYork; do we have any other clues that this is the location?

Wellif we use our imagination we could take Arethusa to pinpoint a locationof sorts as Arethusa Falls are located not too far from New York andthe final line of the quatrain does appear to mention Arethusa and anew river. Arethusa was in fact a mythological creature that turnedinto a fountain. So we can see that even with the words we cannot beexactly sure of what Nostradamus meant in his original text.Nevertheless, it makes for interesting reading and much speculation anduntil someone cracks his code we might never know the truth.

10. The mystery of the horned hand symbol

Conspiracytheorists are always banging on about the New World Order, secretsocieties with hidden agendas and a master plan for the world that isorchestrated and controlled by only a handful of people but as towhether there any real truth in this, we can only guess.

However,one thing that is particularly intriguing is a hand sign that is usedby many people in so called positions of power and that is the handsign of the horned god or Mano Cornuto. So what does it mean, ifanything at all? Many reasons are given for the prolific use of thishand sign, such as warding off evil powers, or that it is the deaf signlanguage for I love you or peace, it is also associated with rock musicand is often used by musicians. But, according to the conspiracytheorists it is also a secret sign used by the Illuminati to showsolidarity for the cause.

George Bush uses the sign often,however, according to media reports; this is because it is the “hook’em horns” symbol for the Texas Longhorn. This is true, it actually is,except that it is the back of the hand that is shown, not the front.Nevertheless, even if Bush got it wrong, it doesn’t explain why he usedit throughout his inauguration or why others are using it too, albeitback to front, when they have no connection with Texas football or evenwith the United States.

The first image represents the hornedgod of witchcraft, Pan or Cernunnos. Note the thumb under the fingersand given by the right hand. The next image is a sign of recognitionbetween those in the Occult. When pointed at someone it is meant toplace a curse. Note the thumb over the fingers and given by the lefthand.

Thehorned hand is actually an ancient occult sign depicting allegiance tothe horned god or to Satan so you would think that if there was theslightest doubt about its meaning, people in such high profilepositions would refrain from using it, at least in public, unless ofcourse it has another meaning altogether that the rest of us may not beaware of. Yes there are rumours that George Bush is a member of occultgroups such as the skull and bones and Bohemian Grove, but the Pope andeveryone else too??? Is it just an innocent case of monkey see monkeydo or is it a secret sign? You decide!

Posted: 11 August 2008