A team of code breakers have managed to decrypt mysterious 170-year-old messages, published as advertisements in the British newspaper The Times. Amazingly, they turned out to be linked to an arctic rescue mission, sent to try and recover the infamous Franklin Expedition, in which Lord John Franklin and all 129 of his crew died.
Elonka Dunin – such a well-known code breaker as a Dan Brown character The lost symbol is named after her – and fellow cryptographers Klaus Schmeh and AJ Jacobs set to work decoding a series of messages sent between March 1850 and March 1855. The messages – which usually started with “S lmpi” and ended with “J de W” – remained unbroken by everyone, but for whom they were intended, for more than 100 years.
No. 16th.-S.lkqo. C. hgo & Tatty. F. kmn to npkl F. qgli Ingk S mhn F. olhi E qkpn. S. niql s mnhq F. qgli. Austin S pgqn C. kioq 6th F. iqhl. born. 13th F. kipo a F khg. hmip. to E. mlhg by D oi. S. pkqg C omgk B. hkq. qkng F.ioph. at hnio. S. ompi C. mkop F. oiph to MC nhmg & F. mpkh. nmkq E. lhpq. J. of w.
A message printed on October 1, 1851
Then, in 1980, The Times once again published the coded message, asking its readers to try to decipher it. Again, no one succeeded, but several people pointed out something intriguing: “a possible link between a clear latitude and longitude and expeditions to find the Northwest Passage,” according to one article. published in the journal Cryptology in 1992.
This is where the infamous Franklin Expedition comes in. On the morning of May 19, 1845, the Franklin Expedition set sail in an attempt to make their way through the Northwest Passage, a route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific across the Arctic Ocean. When they got trapped in the ice, many of them were able to survive for two years on the supplies they brought with them, but eventually all of the crew died.
Five years later, naval officer Admiral Sir Richard Collinson led an expedition to find the lost ship, searching for Franklin and his doomed crew in the Canadian Arctic. The dates of this failed mission – 18050-1855 – noticed the contestants of the Times in 1980, well aligned with the publication of encrypted advertisements. The theory, which ultimately won first prize for a retired judge who entered the competition, was that the people on Collinson’s expedition were using it to communicate updates with their backers.
However, when codebreaker John Rabson attempted to decode the message in 1992, what he was able to decode did not match reports to backers.
“Your wife and family were fine when I left both Bernard and Tatty at home,” read one, while another informed the reader, once they had cracked the code, “Lady Peel’s husband was killed last month by falling from his horse”.
Another decade after that, Elonka Dunin and her team hit the trail again. During a talk at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference – seen by the motherboard – she explained that when looking at the groups of letters, they noticed similarities with the Maryat signaling code used by ships to send encrypted messages to each other using flags. The flags represent different numbers. By raising the flags in order, a message can be spelled out using a cipher, which can then be decoded using the same cipher on the receiving ship. Dunin applied numbers to letters in encrypted advertisements, and of course, that was the system they used.
Messages that had been carefully encrypted and then placed in a journal were even more the same.
“I want to try if you can read this and I’m very excited to hear this and, when you’ll be back, and how long you’ll be staying,” a read message. “Write a few lines my dear, please. I am very far from happy since you left.
Dunin’s investigation confirmed that the messages were used to convey updates on family life from those at home to those aboard the Collinson Expedition.
“Prior to [Collinson’s] trip of several years, there had been a debate about how his family should keep in touch with him, especially since he was always on the move”, Dunin explained on Facebook. “They came up with something quite creative. They knew pretty much anywhere he went he could get copies of The (London) Times newspaper.”
“So his family would put encrypted classifieds in the newspaper, and whenever he was in port he could find a copy of the newspaper and find out how people were doing.”
The system meant that Collinson could communicate with his home as long as he could read The Times, wherever he landed. Encryption meant no one else could see the content. Many of the posts remain intact, but Dunin — and others — care.