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Copiale Cipher: How a secret society's code was finally cracked

Copiale Cipher: Computer scientists have cracked the code of the Copiale Cipher, an 18th-century manuscript of a German secret society known as the 'Oculist Order.'

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A mysterious encrypted manuscript of a secret society, meticulously written in abstract symbols and Roman letters, has finally been deciphered more than three centuries after it was first handwritten, scientists now reveal.

The enciphered message, or cryptogram, revealed the rituals and political aims of an enigmatic 18th-century German fellowship, the "Oculist Order," revealing the society had a fascination with eye surgery, though it seems members of the society were not eye doctors.

"This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies," said researcher Kevin Knight, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California. "Historians believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, and a big part of the reason, is because so many documents are enciphered."

Cracking a cryptogram

The mysterious cryptogram, bound in gold-and-green brocade paper, dates back to a time between 1760 and 1780. Once hidden in the depths of the East Berlin Academy and uncovered after the Cold War, its 75,000 characters are written in 90 different cipher letters, including the 26 Roman letters as well as many abstract symbols. [Read: History's Most Overlooked Mysteries]

On its 105 yellowing pages, the only plain text is "Philipp 1866" on the flyleaf and "Copiales 3" at the end of the last page. "Philipp" is thought to have been an owner of the manuscript, while "Copiales" was used to give the secret writing its name: the Copiale Cipher.

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