Top 12 Cryptograms From History: Unraveling the Mysteries

Sharing is caring!

Voynich Manuscript
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Decoding cryptograms is the art of unraveling the hidden meanings within encrypted messages. Historically, cryptograms were used to conceal information, requiring exacting strategies for decoding.

Note: Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that we earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase, at zero cost to you.

Techniques in Decryption

  • Frequency Analysis: This involves identifying the frequency of each letter’s appearance and comparing it to known language statistics.
  •  Pattern Recognition: Observes the recurrence of letter patterns to predict words or phrases.
  •  Substitution Ciphers: Each letter or group of letters is replaced with another letter or symbol. A key or algorithm is used for decoding.
  •  Transposition Ciphers: Involves rearranging the letters or groups of letters according to a certain system.

Steps in the Decryption Process

  1. Identify the Type of Cipher: Understanding whether it’s a substitution, transposition, or more complex cipher.
  2.  Analyze Symptomatically: Pattern and frequency analyses often provide the initial insights.
  3.  Hypothesize: Form possible solutions based on partial decryption or known ciphers.
  4.  Test Hypotheses: Use various algorithms or keys to test against the cryptogram.
  5.  Refinement: Refine decryption based on the success of previous steps.

Cryptogram analysis tools used range from simple pen-and-paper methods to advanced computerized algorithms. Despite modern technology, deciphering historical cryptograms can be as difficult as when they were originally created, as they may require specialized historical or linguistic knowledge to understand their context and construct.

Different challenges are encountered based on the era, purpose, and creator of a cryptogram. Intelligence operatives, military strategists, and even hobbyists have engaged in decoding efforts to unravel the secrets of the past.

Influential Historical Cryptograms

Throughout history, cryptograms have served as formidable tools in warfare, puzzle challenges, and mysteries. They have encrypted secrets and stumped the best cryptanalysts, sometimes for centuries.

The Caesar Cipher

The Caesar Cipher is an ancient encryption technique used by Julius Caesar. It involves shifting the letters of the alphabet a set number of places down the alphabet. Simple yet effective for its time, it is a widely understood example of substitution ciphers.

WWII Enigma Code

The WWII Enigma Code, a sophisticated encryption used by the Nazis during World War II, was cracked by Allied codebreakers. This contributed significantly to the Allied victory, making it a turning point in cryptographic history.

The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript, an illustrated codex handwritten in an unknown writing system, has been carbon-dated to the 15th century. Despite extensive study, its content, language, and purpose remain a mystery.

Kryptos Sculpture

The Kryptos Sculpture is a modern, enigmatic sculpture by artist Jim Sanborn located at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It features four encrypted messages, one of which remains unsolved, challenging both CIA personnel and the public.

The Beale Ciphers

The Beale Ciphers consist of three cipher texts. They allegedly pinpoint the location of a substantial hidden treasure and have been puzzling treasure hunters and cryptanalysts since their publication in 1885.

Zodiac Killer Ciphers

The Zodiac Killer Ciphers were mysterious codes sent to newspapers during a series of murders in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Only a few of these codes have been cracked, and the identity of the Zodiac Killer is still unknown, despite much speculation.

Dorabella Cipher

The Dorabella Cipher is a set of 87 characters crafted by composer Edward Elgar in 1897. It has never been convincingly deciphered, leading to widespread intrigue and speculation.

The Shugborough Inscription

The Shugborough Inscription is a sequence of letters carved onto the 18th-century Shepherd’s Monument in Staffordshire, England. The inscription has been linked to various historical mysteries, including the Holy Grail.


Chaocipher, presented by John F. Byrne in 1918, is an algorithmically sophisticated cipher. Its unique method of permutation makes it stand out and puzzles cryptanalysts to this day.

The Rohonc Codex

The Rohonc Codex is a manuscript with a mix of indecipherable symbols and images dating back to the 16th or 17th century. The script has yet to be interpreted, adding to its enigma and the debates over its origin.

The Taman Shud Case

The Taman Shud Case involves an unidentified man found dead in Australia in 1948 with a scrap of paper bearing the words “Taman Shud.” This case has confounded authorities, given its connections with espionage and unsolved codes.

The Linear B Script

The Linear B Script was used for writing Mycenaean Greek around the 15th century BC. Michael Ventris and John Chadwick deciphered it in 1952, shedding light on early Greek civilization and administrative practices.

Cryptanalysis Techniques and Breakthroughs

Cryptanalysis is the art of deciphering encrypted messages without prior knowledge of the key used in encryption. Throughout history, cryptanalysts have developed various techniques to break cryptograms and unravel the secrets they hold.

Frequency Analysis: One of the earliest and simplest techniques is frequency analysis. It relies on the fact that, in any given language, certain letters appear with predictable frequency. By analyzing these frequencies, cryptanalysts can make educated guesses about the plaintext.

Pattern Recognition: Cryptanalysts often look for patterns in the text, such as repeated sequences of characters that could indicate common words or phrases. Pattern recognition can also reveal the structure of the encryption algorithm.

Codebooks: Historically, codebooks were essential for decryption. These books would match encrypted words or phrases with their plaintext equivalents. Capturing an enemy’s codebook was a significant breakthrough.

Computational Methods: With the rise of computers, cryptanalysts gained powerful tools. Computers can test vast numbers of possible keys or conduct complex statistical analyses, greatly accelerating the decryption process.

AncientSubstitution and transpositionUse of simple ciphers like Caesar
RenaissancePolyalphabetic cipherVigenère Cipher
World War IAutomated encryption systemsRoom 40’s decryption efforts
World War IIElectromechanical breakingCracking Enigma with Bombe
ModernMathematical algorithmsPublic-key cryptography

Mathematical Algorithms: Modern cryptanalysis often involves advanced mathematics, including number theory and computational complexity theory. Public-key cryptography, for instance, relies on problems that are computationally difficult to solve, such as factoring large prime numbers.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *