Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Source of Inspiration

The Beale ciphers remain one of the most perplexing mysteries in the world of codebreaking. In 1817, Thomas Beale and twenty-nine other hardy souls set out on a journey across the United States. After crossing the Great Plains, Beale discovered gold north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He mined the site for more than a year before deciding that he needed to hide his treasure trove.

Beale struck up a friendship with Robert Morriss, the proprietor of a hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia. Before journeying west again, he entrusted Morriss with the contents of a locked box, which he said contained papers of great value. Beale disappeared forever, and eventually Morriss's curiosity overwhelmed him. Morriss opened the box and found a note in English and three sheets that contained nothing but numbers. The note indicated that the key to deciphering the sheets would be sent via post by another party. The key never arrived.

Morriss spent next twenty years trying in vain to crack the ciphers. At age 88, understanding that his life was coming to an end, he explained the existence of the ciphers to a friend, who subsequently published a pamphlet explaining the mystery. This same friend cracked the second cipher by matching each number with the first letter of a word in the Declaration of Independence. The resulting message placed the value of the hidden treasure at nearly $20 million in today's dollars. The remaining ciphers would purportedly reveal the location of the treasure.

The Beale ciphers have occupied some of the best minds in cryptography over the last century. Carl Hammer, a pioneer of computerized codebreaking, stated that the Beale ciphers have occupied 10% of the best crytanalytic minds in the country. Needless to say, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of man-hours have been spent trying to crack the remaining ciphers -- all to no avail. Many have speculated that the Beale ciphers are a hoax, but others continue to try their hand at breaking the ciphers.

The good news: The Trumalia enigmas are quite solvable. It will be extremely difficult to decode all four enigmas... but I can assure you that it is possible.


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