Tuesday, February 4, 2014


A page of handwritten text.We were recently reviewing a large number of older books that were originally part of the Thayer School's engineering library. Tucked in among the books with beautiful engraved plates was a small practical treatise Geodaesia: or, the Art of Surveying (New York: Samuel Campbell, 1796). Book is not particularly rare, but the front flyleaf caught our eye. It contains what appears to be 14 lines of verse with coded words inserted.

What might we have found? Forbidden love? No, the key is present--it is just a simple substitution code based on Napoleon Bonaparte. There was no challenge in deciphering the words. Instead, it seems to be a bit of parlor game fun perpetrated by James W. Rollins, class of 1845 who signed the book numerous times. Below is a transcription of the verse with the decoded words bracketed.

My [paean] is a martial hymn
My [apart] signifies separation
My [pole] is an inhabitant of a country in Europe
My 3.12.1 [pan] is one of the heathen gods
My [bone] is part of the human frame
My [note] My whole is a man of
My [anne] is an English queen
My [pope] is the official name of one formally of great power
My 15.2.16 [rat] is a very mischievous little critter
My 5.17.4 [leo] is the name of a former pope
My [napoleon] is a gold coin
My [aaron] is a person of note in the Bible
My [bear] is a wild animal
My whole is a man of distinction

Key N/1 a/2 p/3 0/4 l/5 e/6 0/7 n/8 B/9 o/10 n/11 a/12 p/13 a/14 r/15 t/16 e/17

An open book. The visible pages are blank except for a series of dots.
More intriguing is a series of dots on the back flyleaves with a sketch of Napoleon and the same key. This probably required a sheet to be laid over the dots to reveal their secret message.  Based on the Napoleon code, we doubt anything too earth shattering is hidden. Still… one never knows.

To decode it, ask for Rauner Thayer TA544.L89 1796.

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