By RACHEL EMMA SILVERMAN
The Wall Street Journal
July 2, 2009
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
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."
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