The Copiale Cipher

In an oft-cited letter in 1947 to the mathematician Norbert Wiener, he wrote: “One naturally wonders if the problem of translation could conceivably be treated as a problem in cryptography. When I look at an article in Russian, I say: ‘This is really written in English, but it has been coded in some strange symbols. I will now proceed to decode.’ ”

An off-hand remark by Warren Weaver spawned monstrosities like Google Translate, but also gave us the ability to solve centuries old mysteries. The Copiale Cipher is a 105 page book that is thought to date to the 19th century. Now that we are able to decode part of it, the manuscript turns out to describe a ritual from a secret society that apparently had a fascination with eye surgery and ophthalmology. That was a lot of work on the part of someone to hide their hobby.