Monday, February 17, 2014

Unusual Artifacts: Thomas Jefferson’s “Wheel Cipher”

"Wheel Cipher"
Thomas Jefferson
(Reproduction from original design)

Aside from being the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the Third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was a rather clever fellow who enjoyed tinkering with things and coming up with his own little inventions. While working as George Washington’s secretary, Jefferson devised a tool which could be employed to encode and decode secret messages.

When compared to our spy technology of the present, the “wheel cipher” looks like something one would get in a box of cereal (perhaps, “Frosted Colonial O’s”), but is nonetheless rather brilliant for its time. The cipher was ostensibly a threaded metal spindle upon which twenty-six wooden cylindrical pieces were fitted. Each of the wooden pieces contained all of the letters of the alphabet.

To use the device, a short message would be spelled out across one line of the letters. Then, the sender of the message would write down the corresponding gibberish which the recipient would then use to decipher the message by fiddling with the wheel. So, to use the example of the 
Monticello Web site, if one were to spell out “Cool Jefferson Wheel Cipher,” the line below it would read "NKYG NSUS NXML CQYO TYUH HFTD.” This is what would be sent to the recipient of the message who would align the letters on the wheel to break the code. Time consuming, but effective.

The wheel fell out of use in 1802 because it was kind of—kind of…silly, frankly. But, it had a good run and it did serve to revolutionize (no pun intended) the way in which secret communications were sent.

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