For those with eyes to see… I really enjoyed this story in Cabinet about the cryptographical career of Colonel William F. Friedman, and his examples of using codes “to make anything signify anything”. For example, this photo:
At first glance, the photo looks like a standard-issue keepsake of the kind owned by anyone who has served in the military. Yet Friedman found it so significant that he had a second, larger copy framed for the wall of his study. When he looked at the oblong image, taken in Aurora, Illinois, on a winter’s day in 1918, what did Friedman see? He saw seventy-one officers, soon to be sent to the war in France, for whom he had designed a crash course on the theory and practice of cryptology… And he saw a coded message, hiding in plain sight. As a note on the back of the larger print explains, the image is a cryptogram in which people stand in for letters; and thanks to Friedman’s careful positioning, they spell out the words “KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.” (Or rather they almost do: for one thing, they were four people short of the number needed to complete the “R.”)
The photograph was an enduring reminder, then, of Friedman’s favorite axiom — and he was so fond of the phrase that some fifty years later he had it inscribed as the epitaph on his tomb in Arlington National Cemetery. It captures a formative moment in a life spent looking for more than meets the eye, and it remained Friedman’s most cherished example of how, using the art and science of codes, it was possible to make anything signify anything. This idea will no doubt strike us as quintessentially modern, if not postmodern, but Friedman took it straight from the great Renaissance scholar-statesman Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), along with both the hidden motto in the image and the method used to convey it. In other words, the graduation photo from Friedman’s earliest course in military cryptanalysis is at once a tribute to Bacon’s philosophy and a master class in the use of his biliteral cipher.
When you read through the article, and take into other cipher examples from history such as Kircher’s ‘alchemical cipher‘ (in which the first letters of each word in the emblem form the words “Sulphur Fixum Est Sol” (see Manly Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages for more examples), it really does make you wonder how many coded messages we may be missing in famous works of art and historical texts.
Another interesting note from the article is that for some time Friedman was engaged in a well-funded, serious project investigating whether Francis Bacon was the true identity behind the genius of Shakespeare, via a search for biliteral ciphers in the Bard of Avon’s works.
I had to smile at the link there, because in my own book The Guide to Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol I spent a chapter looking at codes and ciphers, and in my description of Bacon’s biliteral cipher I jokingly included an example that decoded to “Francis Bacon was Shakespeare”…