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July 03, 2009

This little joke on Thomas Jefferson

Cryptologist Lawren Smithline cracks a code and solves a mystery that had frustrated generations of Jefferson scholarship.

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 of perfection."

Posted by Ghost of a flea at July 3, 2009 08:44 AM