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From FLYNN's December 13, 1924


Edited by M. E . Ohaver

IS PROUD to add this new department to the notable achievements of FLYNN'S. No man can touch practical detective problems without soon coming in contact with some sort of code or cipher writing. Sometimes it is very simple, a mere transposition of letters or words of the sort that every schoolboy would soon solve.

Frequently, however, the cryptogram is blind and complicated beyond the understanding of any except the most experienced and ingenious of experts.

Here is one phase in which the fiction writer has still to learn from fact. The examples that Mr. Ohaver gives are of ciphers actually used. Many of them are in connection with great historic events. There are few cases in fiction showing greater ingenuity than is exhibited here.

Codes play a larger part in the world to-day probably than ever before. The development of commerce, the growth of complex international relationships, the crossing of military and political wires, all have laid greater emphasis on the need of secret writing—of masking the meaning in innocent words that shall be clear only to the one for whom they are intended. The examples given here cover the world, historically and geographically.

Here's a chance to try your wits. They have all been solved, and once the key is found the solution is comparatively simple in each case. Work it out and send your solution to the editor of the Cipher Department of FLYNN'S , New York.

Perhaps you have a cipher of your own to suggest. The cipher editor will be glad to consider it.

This department, with new ciphers to solve and solutions of the old ones, will appear in FLYNN'S at frequent intervals.

N selecting a cipher system for the first article in our new department, probably none could be more appropriate than the Lacedeemonian Scytale, one of the earliest known methods of secret writing. Some have claimed that this is the first cryptographic system ever used, but such a statement is rather broad. It is safer, and more correct, to say that it is one of the first of which we can find any record.

Certain authorities on cryptography have credited the invention of the scytale to Archimedes. As a matter of history it is definitely known to have been used by the Spartans as a means of military communication at least four centuries B.C.

The old Greek biographer Plutarch describes the use of the scytale in his life of Lysander. When the Spartan magistrates sent an admiral or general on his way, they prepared two staffs of wood, called scytales, both of the same length and diameter. They kept one themselves, and the other they gave to the person sent forth.

When they had occasion to communicate any secret or important matter, they wound a narrow strip of white leather or parchment spirally around the staff, so that the edges came exactly together, forming a smooth and continuous surface. Then they wrote what they desired lengthwise of the staff, after which the scroll was unrolled and sent to its destination.

The official receiving the message could read nothing of the writing, because the words and letters were not connected, but all broken up. Upon winding the scroll about his own exactly similar staff, however, all the parts were restored to their original order, thus bringing the whole contents of the message to view.

Scytale Scryer

Above is shown a drawing of a scytale bearing the message: This is a very old method of secret writing. The illustration also shows the scroll removed from the scytale. The message is broken up into small groups of letters, which, if read off in order, stand as follows:


In this cipher arrangement of the scytale message, it will be seen that each group of letters is separated from the group with which it forms sequence in the original message by an "interval" equal to the number of lines written on the scytale. In the above case this interval is 3. That is, if the groups be read off from left to right, taking every third group, the message can be readily deciphered.

The scytale cipher is of the transposition class. That is, it is a cipher in which the letters keep their original meanings, merely having their relative positions changed or transposed.

To read a scytale cipher it is only necessary to find the interval. This may be done by trying any letter group with several others until one is found with which it forms a logical sequence.

Scholars of various times have burned gallons of midnight oil in delving into the mysteries of the scytale, and have formed their own ideas as to how it should be deciphered. We append a few of these methods. The learned Julius Caesar Scaliger in the sixteenth century, and after him John Falconer, author of a book on ciphers published in 1685, proposed to join the edges of the strip together in a serpentine revolution, and by slipping the strip through the fingers unite the portions of the divided word, and thus find the correct circumference to make a scytale by on which the message might be read.

Philip Thicknesse, also author of a book on cryptography in 1772, advised a much more ready method, that of cutting the strip in short pieces equal to the circumference of the staff, and then by joining the edges of these strips together on a flat surface, such as a table, the entire writing would be exposed at once.

Edgar Allan Poe suggested the use of a cone of about six feet length, and of a circumference at the base equal to the length of the parchment strips. By adjusting the strip about the base of the cone with the edges together, and sliding the same gradually toward the apex, a point would be reached where the proper connection between parts of words would be formed. Having thus learned the circumference of the staff, Poe advised the making of a special scytale of this size, as did Scaliger and Falconer.

The scytale was, in its time, considered absolutely secret. Messages are known to have been intercepted, but there is no instance on record when any were ever deciphered. So we will now give our readers an opportunity to match their wits against this clever device of the ancients.

The following cipher is an English translation of a genuine scytale message written over two thousand years ago. It was sent by the Spartans when they had met the Athenians with disastrous results near Czyicus in B . C . 410. The Spartan admiral Mindarus lost his life in this battle, as you will discover in the cipher.


The periods and commas are a part of the cipher, but the dashes only mark the divisions between the groups, as illustrated above.

In the next installment of this department we will offer for your entertainment an ingenious cipher which saved the life of a prisoner during the administration of William Pitt as Premier of England about a hundred and fifty years ago. We will also give the correct interpretation of this week's scytale cipher. Don't fail to get a copy of the issue containing the new cipher and the solution of this.