Edgar Allen Poe Cipher Solved

1-Nov-2000 12:00 AM EST

Williams College

Add to Favorites


EDGAR ALLEN POE CIPHER SOLVED, BUT MYSTERY REMAINS

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Oct. 31, 2000--The Edgar Allan Poe Cryptographic Challenge contest has a winner. After over 150 years, Gil Broza of Toronto has solved the second of two mysterious ciphers left by Poe.

Poe was fascinated by cryptography and his most famous story, "The Gold-Bug," centers on the solution to a cipher. In 1840 Poe wrote an article for Graham's Magazine titled "A Few Words on Secret Writing," offering a free subscription to the magazine to anyone who would send him a cipher he could not crack. Poe ended the contest six months later, claiming to have solved all of the 100 legitimate ciphers sent to him, and concluded by publishing two ciphers ostensibly sent in by a "Mr. W. B. Tyler."

There the ciphers remained until 1985, when Professor Louis Renza of Dartmouth College suggested that Tyler was actually a double for Poe himself, a theory that was later elaborated on by Professor Shawn Rosenheim at Williams College, who argues the ciphers were placed in the magazine by Poe as a final challenge to his readers.

Spurred to action by Rosenheim's work, Terence Whalen, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, solved the first of Tyler's cryptographs in 1992, a monoalphabetic substitution cipher. The text came from the 1713 play "Cato," by the English essayist Joseph Addison, but the identity of the cryptographer was unknown, and may have been Poe. Hoping to discover the encipherer in the second cryptograph, and unable to find anyone who could solve it, Rosenheim established a $2,500 prize, supported by Williams College, for the solution of the second cipher.

In 1998, Jim Moore, a software designer specializing in encryption, heard of the contest and offered to build a website to promote it. After two years of fielding guesses, Rosenheim and his team of judges received the correct decryption of a paragraph in July from Gil Broza, a 27-year-old software engineer living in Toronto. The lines, which don't appear to have been written by Poe, were encrypted with a polyalphabetic substitution cipher using six different symbols for each English letter.

Broza's solution revealed that the original cipher had over two dozen mistakes introduced by the typesetters or the encipherer. The second cipher's many errors stem from the difficulties of distinguishing between the different typestyles and their inversions and reversals. William Lenhart, professor of computer science at Williams College and contest judge, tested a range of alternative solutions, hoping to improve on the spelling and grammar of the plaintext, but found only trivial misidentifications by Broza.

After nearly two months of manipulating the cipher to no avail, Broza, who holds a B.S and an M.S. in computational linguistics from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, concluded that the cipher must be riddled with errors. He decided to substitute the words "the", "and", and "not" for all three lettered words in the cipher to see where it led him. Slowly but surely the words "ardent" and "afternoon" emerged from the text, convincing Broza he was on the right track, and enabling him to ultimately decipher the text as a whole.

The deciphered text, which is noticeably garbled at points, begins "It was early spring, warm and sultry glowed the afternoon. The very breezes seemed to share the delicious langour of universal nature ... " For the full text, see http://www.bokler.com.

The mystery now, Rosenheim said, lies in solving the riddle of who enciphered the lines in the first place, and what commentary on Poe's work that provides.

END

Contact Jo Procter, college news directorDirect phone line: (413) 597-4279Jo.Procter@williams.edu

Shawn Rosenheim , associate professor of EnglishDirect phone line: (413) 597-2363Shawn.Rosenheim@williams.edu

Chat now!
0.07612