USC computer scientist helps crack centuries-old code

Copiale Cipher

AP Photo/USC

This image provided by the University of Southern California shows a copy of the Copiale Cipher. Scientists in California and Sweden said they have used computer translation techniques to solve a 250-year-old mystery by deciphering this coded manuscript, the Copiale Cipher, written for a secret society.

It sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but this story is no fiction. A USC computer scientist has helped crack the code in a late 18th century manuscript known as the "Copiale Cypher."

The 105-page book was found in East Berlin after the end of the Cold War. Since then, people have been trying to figure out its meaning.

Kevin Knight of USC decided to take on the task after colleagues approached him following a talk in Sweden earlier this year. Knight says he and two Swedish researchers used a combination of computer techniques and human intuition to unravel the code.

The manuscript contains about 90 distinct characters, including all of the Roman and Greek letters. But Knight said there are lots of "strange symbols" and no spaces between the words. Even more problematic, there's no hint of the language in which it was written.

The team went down some wrong paths before hypothesizing that the plain text might be German. That helped reveal the first three words: "Ceremonie of initiation." Knight and his partners were then able to figure out the rest of the manuscript, which contained the rituals of an 18th century secret German society.

Knight's typical job doesn't involve code-breaking; he writes automatic translation software. He says the techniques used in those two tasks could be combined to solve even more difficult codes in the future.

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