The Chaocipher Clearing House

Progress Report #7

Moshe Rubin (

Comments from Readers

Since starting the Chaocipher Clearing House I have received numerous responses from readers.  One of these is Jeff Calof.  With Jeff's permission I would like to upload some of the e-mail thread we've been conducting.

Received 11 March 2009
Hi Moshe,

Great analysis and written summarization of your work on Chaocipher.  I, too, have enjoyed(!) the challenge of Byrne's ingenious scheme.

After reading Kruh's Cryptologia Article, I noted that in Exhibit 5 - Message #3 the ciphertext string BBNKF appeared twice.  Once as a complete, independent block, the other as as split block (TBBNK FUCBP).  Interestingly, this Message has an anomaly as presented in the article - namely, while all other full blocks are 5 characters, this one contains a 4 letter block (UHWA) between the 2 instances of BBNKF.  I can't determine if this was an error during the writing of the article (i.e., a character got inadvertently dropped) or an intended ciphering decision.  If intended, then there are 29 characters between the two occurrences (From the 2nd B in BBNKF to the first B of the next instance).  If a 5th character was left out of the noted block, then you'd have 30 characters between the BBNKF occurrences.

It's unlikely that such a 5-character string would occur entirely randomly.  ...

Keep up the good work - I wonder if Byrne Jr., Kruh and Deavours will ever divulge what they know (Non-disclosure agreement notwithstanding)?

Jeff Calof

Sent 13 March 2009
Hi Jeff,

First off, thank you very much for your kind words.  The best compliment you could give me is that the site is of value to you.  I had a feeling that much more Chaocipher research was being done but there was no focal point.  From the responses I'm getting I believe this is true.  I hope you will take part in this global effort.  I look forward to any other comments, research, etc. you may have.

Truth be told, I had not noticed the 5-letter repetition -- thanks for pointing it out.  I'd like to compute the probability of such an occurrence.  The other four exhibits do not show any causal repetitions (Mellen points out a 5-letter repetition, XXACN, in Exhibit 1 but notes that the plaintexts are different, so the repetition is non-causal).  Could Deavours and Kruh have knowingly selected a plaintext so that an underlying plaintext repetition *was* duplicated in the ciphertext?  I hope to pursue this repetition in the future and look forward to any research you may do on it.
. . .
You mention that there is a 4-letter block, UHWA, in message #3. You may have lost a letter while transcribing or scanning the message in.  The article clearly shows:


Therefore the distance between the repetitions is 31.  The repetition is definitely not expected and should be examined carefully.  . . . I agree with you that Byrne may have used gear-like sequences or cipher alphabets whose periods are prime to each other.  This may be what he meant when he wrote that the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians could have been completely familiar with the principle.

Regarding Byrne, Deavours and Kruh divulging the mechanism, I asked Deavours and Kruh this same question in a recent e-mail to them (they haven't answered yet).  In my opinion there is no commercial value in Byrne's system given the power, security, and ease of public-key systems today.  In this light Byrne would do best to publicize the system.  The cryptologic community will verify whether it has any commercial value.

Thank you once again for you kind words and for taking the time to write them.  I look forward to hearing from you again.

Best regards,

Moshe Rubin

After uploading Progress Report #6 I received this e-mail from Jeff (20 March 2009):

Hi Moshe,

Great article today... I especially took note of the Callimahos article and excerpts.  The "fractionate" reference supported something I've always suspected was a missed clue from Byrne - but seeing this supports my suspicion.

On Page 265 of "Silent Years", Byrne writes:

"The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians could have been completely familiar with the principle, a fact which is readily deducible from a treatise on mathematics written by Hero of Alexandria in the second century B.C"

I believe this reference is to Hero, or Heron's, treatise "Metrica".  The highlight of this is the Babylonian method for finding Square Roots (also known as the Heron Method).  Considering other facts Byrne tells us of Chaocipher, this offers some possibilities for the method.  Byrne writes:

Page 266 - "If every person on earth were to encipher the same message, say for instance, this paragraph of which this sentence is a part, no two of the resultant encipherments would be alike"

This seems to indicate a Cipher Key is at play somehow;  if every Encipherer's key were the non-repeating decimal Square Root fraction sequence of some uniquely chosen non-pure Square number, this would meet Byrne's criteria.

What could each Encipherer use for their base #?  Their birth date (MM/DD/YEAR) is nearly unique;  their name less-so but could be numerically represented.  Or some other agreed-upon # between Sender/Receiver.

My problem with this, however, is something that Byrne writes, and Kruh and Deavours seem to substantiate - namely, is this something one would consider "Simple":

Byrne Page 264 - My method for splitting the word is so simple that it could be performed by any normal 10-year-old school child

K&D (2nd Page) - Byrne showed Deavours and Kruh how the Chaocipher worked. They were quickly impressed with its simplicity, ease of operation and security

For 1918, I wonder if reducing any number to its non-repeating square-root value by hand would be considered "Simple" - probably not.

Keep up the great analysis... I'm greatly enjoying your insight and progress.


Jeff Calof

Here's my response to him on 21 March 2009:

Hi Jeff,

Many thanks (again!) for your very kind words (I wasn't sure if you received my reply on 13 March to your first e-mail, so I'm attaching it just in case).  It's great to hear from one's peers, especially on a subject we're both highly interested in.  I know my progress reports are circling around the target, but I get a strong feeling that they're homing in on it.  My thoughts are becoming clearer and more focused re Chaocipher the more I commit thoughts to paper.  I hope I can help others like you to see your ways clear to solving this challenge.

<< The "fractionate" reference supported something I've always suspected was a missed clue from Byrne - but seeing this supports my suspicion >>

I'm glad to hear you've thought along the same lines.  I'm wondering how two concentric disks can be used to fractionate a letter and recombine it again.  Any ideas?  There is a difference between Byrne and Callimahos: Byrne refers to splitting a word while Callimahos refers to fractionating a letter.  They might be referring to the same thing ...

<< I believe this reference is to Hero, or Heron's, treatise "Metrica". The highlight of this is the Babylonian method for finding Square Roots (also known as the Heron Method) >>

Your idea is a valid one, as there is an infinite number of numbers whose square roots are irrational.  I believe there was also a "letter of influence" element in the cipher, so two people using the same seed number N would diverge almost immediately based on the plaintext, fulfilling Byrne's description of an infinite number of keys.  Vis-a-vis Chaocipher, such a system would have to address the following:

    * As you say, it would have to qualify as "simple".
    * We know the system fit in a cigar box.  Could Byrne have created a square root calculator in some form?
    * It would have to explain the "pt/ct identities > 9" phenomenon in Exhibit 1.  Can you think of such a scheme?

In my reply to you last week I thanked you for pointing out the highly significant repetition in Exhibit 5, Message 3.  It was your observation that launched into investigating the repetition in the exhibits.  (I pointed out that you may have dropped a letter accidentally when transcribing the message.)  I'd like to thank you again . . .

Regarding the Exhibit 5 repetition, as I wrote, it certainly looks highly significant.  I'm wondering what one can do with it.  It has a distance of 31, so you have your prime number theory back again <g>.

Once again, Jeff, thank you so much for following my progress reports and for taking the time to write.  It's a great feeling knowing others are enjoying them.

Best regards and looking forward to hearing from you,


P.S.  You might find NSA's Declassification Initiative page of general cryptologic interest:


Although no obvious period is evident in the exhibits, I've been wondering whether the machine returns to its starting settings at some point.  If it did, we would have two or more "in depth" messages from Exhibit 1 itself.  I decided to shift Exhibit 1 against itself, one place at a time, correlating the number of pt/ct matches.  This differs from a regular coincidence test because we have both the plaintext and ciphertext.

So, for example, we encounter this portion of juxtapositioning with a shift of 182:

We would only count one coincidence here, i.e., the O/Y pt/ct pair.  Even though many plaintext letters coincide between the two sequences, only a full pt+ct match is counted here.

Here's the resulting graph:

Graph of pt/ct coincidences versus shift

The first time I saw this graph I was amazed by the tall lines in the left-hand side of the graph.  They were precisely 55 positions apart -- was I on to something?!  The mystery was solved: the "All good, quick" phrase is exactly 55 letters long.  Having 100 such phrases greatly raises the probability of a non-causal pt+ct coincidence.  If we ignore these spikes, the graph looks non-causal, with the number of coincidences slowly decreasing as the number of overlapping letters decreases.

Just to drive the point home, I normalized the preceding graph by dividing the number of coincidences by the number of overlapping letters:

Normalized coincidences graph

The rise at the end is to be expected: with relatively few overlapping letters, the graph becomes much more sensitive to coincidences.

Conclusion: I cannot identify a point where the machine returns to its original settings by examining coincidences.

Experimenting with Cipher Disks

From descriptions by John F. Byrne and  Henry E. Langen the Chaocipher involves two concentric (?) cipher disks with mixed alphabet components on the rims.  After trying to mentally imagine what Byrne may have discovered I decided to make myself a cipher disk.  I was unable to find a suitable template for a 26-letter cipher disk so I wrote a quick-and-dirty program to draw them for me.  I've uploaded a PDF file containing a template with three successively smaller disks and wrote some instructions.  To make your own cipher disk:
  1. Print out the page
  2. Cut out the two largest disks
  3. Write the alphabet components on the disk rims
  4. Get a piece of corrugated cardboard of, say, 6 inches by 6 inches.
  5. Stick a pin through the centers of the disks, connecting them to the cardboard.
That's all there is to it.  Here's a picture of the one I made myself:

Completed cipher disk

Having a physical cipher disk has helped me work on the question: how can one create a sophisticated cipher from a cipher disk. I've learned a lot by just fiddling around with the cipher disk.

In an upcoming progress report I'd like to share with you some of the schemes I've come up with to create sophisticated ciphers from a standard cipher disk.  I highly advise reading F. L. Bauer's [6] chapter 3 ("Encryption Steps: Simple Substitution") and chapter 7 ("Polyalphabetic Encryption: Families of Alphabets") to get a basic mathematical basis for dealing with alphabets: shifted, rotated, power alphabets, cyclic notation, iterated substitutions, mixed alphabets, and more.

Thoughts About the Chaocipher Mechanism

To date I've assumed the Chaocipher is a cipher disk with mixed alphabetic components, with the disks advancing according to some quasi-random order.  In the background is the fact that Exhibit 1 displays the "pt/ct identities > 9" phenomenon -- any candidate mechanism has to explain how this could happen.  I have been able to conceive ways to produce a sophisticated cipher from a cipher disk (see below).  Nonetheless, I returned to Byrne's own description in Silent Years to try and determine what he had in mind.

Here are quotes I believe are relevant to the question:

(A) "The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians could have been completely familiar with the principle, a fact that is readily deducible from a treatise on mathematics written by Hero of Alexandria in the second century B.C" [1, page 265]

(B) "The first device, or machine, which I constructed solely for the purpose of demonstrating a principle, was a little model, constructed in an empty cigar box which, when full, had contained fifty small Havana cigars.  I made this model myself, and to sat that it was a crude affair would be only to describe it accurately." [1, page 265]

(C) "I then approached several machine makers asking for an estimate of the cost of making my machine, and from not one of them could I get anything approaching a firm bid, everyone of them was vague, and the best I could get by way of an estimate was that it would not be less than $5,000 and might run to $10,000 or more; ..." [1, page 267]

(D) "As to the principle of the machine, it is undoubtedly a most ingenious and effective device ..." [1, page 273, letter from Colonel Parker Hitt]

(E) "When I read Colonel Hitt's letter, it was clear to me that he had not at all fully comprehended the principle of my "machine", as he called it." [1, page 273]

(F) "And let me add that devices far more operable than my crude model could be mass-produced to sell at ten dollars each." [1, 282]

(G) "... but he did not bring the cipher machine 'explaining that it was too heavy and cumbersome.'" [2, page 194].

Here are some thoughts:
Greg Mellen [3] has an enlightening discussion on this same question in which he infers the following:
In summary, possible ideas to pursue are:

The Wheatstone Cryptograph: Could it Help?

In the previous section we discussed the possibility that Chaocipher is based on some internal gearing.  This brings to mind the Wheatstone, Pletts, or Wadsworth cipher devices.  I intend on working my way, in an orderly fashion, through William F. Friedman's analysis of the Wheatstone device [7].  Although this is not the Chaocipher mechanism, I hope to (a) widen my cryptanalytic skills, and (b) hopefully get an insight into possible Chaocipher mechanisms.

Alphabet Cycle Decomposition

I referred above to a more sophisticated use of a standard cipher disk.  Although I will have to put it off to a later date, here is the output of the program that generated the two alphabets for my standard cipher disk:

1] hwmdgyceinzvspjfluorxqtakb
2] sbpuiagwlczfredohxmqytvnjk


 (ancgilhsrqtvfompewbkjduxy) (z)
 (bselxtnzfh) (ajoqvryg) (cwpdi) (mu) (k)
 (clmizrtjhpoywuqnfxve) (aksd) (b) (g)
 (asotkbphuylqjxnrvdgwifm) (ez) (c)
 (abutshirnefqkpxjmglyczdw) (ov)
 (aunojyftpqb) (crkid) (lvxsm) (gzh) (e) (w)
 (bgfvmcedzx) (pyrsq) (aiok) (hwln) (jtu)
 (bwcdfnxptihljvqukgr) (eosy) (mz) (a)
 (agehcoblkwzqixust) (drpvy) (fjnm)
 (awfklsvtgdeximrubchzyopnq) (j)
 (albztwriqgoupjkcx) (fsnyh) (em) (d) (v)
 (acmdoiyxghr) (kzvntlp) (eqw) (bf) (js) (u)
 (aznvjbrgxwdheymo) (cqluit) (fpsk)
 (dxlivkrwogmh) (betzjp) (afu) (cyq) (n) (s)
 (bdmxctfinjugqzkevs) (arl) (how) (p) (y)
 (bolgytrcv) (aenkdqf) (puwxzs) (ij) (h) (m)
 (bxrfwqekhmyn) (cjgvu) (aozp) (dt) (is) (l)
 (ahqdvibmtoflckxes) (gnp) (jwy) (uz) (r)
 (axdnufcsgjlzipwthykmv) (bqore)
 (btmjzgslrodky) (aqxhvwn) (cp) (eu) (f) (i)
 (aypzwjfrhngbvlei) (cuds) (ktqm) (o) (x)
 (atyuohjrxmszldbnwkvcigpfe) (q)
 (bjeguhknloxqyiwsfdprm) (avzc) (t)

You can see the following:
In an upcoming progress report I'll discuss how we can use the cycle notations to demystify and simplify working with a cipher disk.


[1] Byrne, John F. 1953.  Silent Years.  New York: Farrar, Straus & Young.

[2] John Byrne, Cipher A. Deavours and Louis Kruh.  Chaocipher enters the computer age when its method is disclosed to Cryptologia editors.  Cryptologia, 14(3): 193-197.

[3] Mellen, Greg.  1979.  J. F. Byrne and the Chaocipher, Work in Progress.  Cryptologia, 3(3): 136-154.

[4] Kahn, David.  1967.  The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing.  Macmillan.

[5] Louis Kruh.  The Mystery of Colonel Decius Wadsworth's Cipher Device.  Cryptologia, 6(3): 238-247.

[6] Bauer, Friedrich. L.  2000.  Decrypted Secrets: Methods and Maxims of Cryptology (2nd ed.).  Berlin: Springer.

[7] Friedman, William F.  Several Machine Ciphers and Methods for their Solution.  Riverbank Publication Volume 2, No. 20.  1918.  Reprinted by Aegean Park Press, 1979.

Copyright (c) 2009 Moshe Rubin
Created: 3 April 2009
Last Updated: 22 November 2018

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