Solving The Silk Dress Cryptogram

One of the World’s top 50 unsolved codes and ciphers recently decoded.

Mystery code in the pocket tells a story about early forecasting.

Sometimes a dress is just a dress. In this story, a dress becomes a kind of time travel portal, where we get to return very briefly to the Industrial Revolution and learn about the history of weather forecasting on the frontiers of North America in the 1800s.

The story starts in 2013 in an antique mall in Maine, where Sara Rivers Cofield sees a beautiful brown dress for sale. Rivers Cofield is an archeologist who also collects old dresses and handbags for fun. She loved this particular dress’s beautiful metal buttons and elaborate bustle.

Once she got the dress home she found a secret pocket hidden under that bustle, inside the seams of the skirt. Upon further inspection, she also found crumpled bits of paper inside the secret pocket.

She recognized that both the dress and the paper were likely from the 1880s. What she couldn’t decipher was the meaning of messages written on the paper – lines of text, many beginning with a place name, followed by seemingly random verbs and nouns.

Bismark, omit, leafage, buck, bank

Calgary, Cuba, unguard, confute, duck, fagan

Spring, wilderness, lining, one, reading, novice.

The so-called “Silk Dress cryptogram” became one of the top 50 unsolved codes and ciphers in the world.

Researcher Wayne Chan from the University of Manitoba solved the mystery.

Telegraphic Code Books are an enormous part of our shared cybersecurity past. They were in continuous use in the West for over 180 years. Every industry used them; they were an everyday/everywhere privacy and compression technology. But somehow we’ve suffered from a sort of collective amnesia and we’ve almost totally forgotten their enormous influence in banking, news reporting, and every area of commerce. Even after all these years, there may be something of value there, some aspect of this antique technology that’s still useful for our modern needs. Much can go wrong (or right) in 180 years — and 180 years of data is quite a luxury.

Story from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

Link to Wayne Chan’s research paper:

Link to 17-minute video graphic novel of the solution to the Silk Dress cryptogram:

— Anthony Collette

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