Tag Archives: Winter 2014-15

Uncover 500 Years of Cryptography at the Folger Library

Writing a text using flowers at the Folger's "Decoding the Renaissance" exhibit

Writing a text using flowers at the Folger’s “Decoding the Renaissance” exhibit


[This is a guest post contributed my friend, Robert Pohl, author of Wicked Capitol Hill and Urban Legends & Historic Lore of Washington D.C. as well as a columnist for The Hill is Home blog and Hill Rag.]


If you think that cryptography, Shakespeare, and kids do not make a good combination, the Folger Shakespeare Library has an exhibition for you. By the time you — and your kids — have worked your way through it, you’ll be singing an entirely new tune.

Decoding the Renaissance: 500 Years of Codes and Cyphers” has something for everyone. Centered around the work of Capitol Hill residents William and Elizebeth Friedman, it tells a remarkable story stretching from the 15th century to the present. The story begins before the First World War, when the two worked at a research institute outside of Chicago. While William was a geneticist, he found himself drawn not just to Elizebeth, but the work that she did. They soon joined forces as cryptographers, attempting to prove the proposition that Francis Bacon had not only written Shakespeare’s plays, but used a code to hide the information that he had done so in the first folios.

While doing this work, the Friedmans also became the acknowledged experts in codes in the US, and were asked to help the war effort. Thus, after Armistice, they moved to Washington, where they worked in various parts of the government to ensure that the codes being used were strong enough to withstand any cracking. This work became of national importance during the Second World War, with William not only creating a code that has apparently never been broken, but cracking a Japanese code considered unbreakable.

The Friedmans never lost their interest in Shakespeare and other arcane codes, and spent considerable amounts of time on the problem that had initially brought them together. As they approached retirement, they returned to that question, eventually writing the definitive book on the subject. (Short answer: No, Shakespeare’s plays were not written by Bacon, nor is there any code hidden in the first folios)

With this sorted out, they turned to an even more intractable question: That of the Voynich manuscript. This remarkable text was rediscovered in 1912 by a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich. It contains over 250 pages of text in an unknown script, along with an amazing variety of pictures. What is encoded in the texts has never been determined, in spite of several multi-year attempts by the Friedmans and continues to puzzle the top cryptographers until today.

All of this — including the Voynich manuscript, on loan from Yale’s Beinecke Library — is on display at the Folger, as well as a number of activities for kids: A scavenger hunt for them (with a prize from the Spy Museum as reward) and the opportunity to, literally, say it with flowers. There are also two programs just for kids on January 3 and February 7, “Become a Spy Master” and “Create a Code.” Both will be from 10-11am, and are for ages 6 to 12. Like the exhibit, they are free, but do require registration.

The Folger Shakespeare Library is located on Capitol Hill at 201 East Capitol Street. “Decoding the Renaissance: 500 Years of Codes and Cyphers” will be on exhibit through February 26. Library hours are 10am – 5pm monday through Saturday, and 12-5pm on Sunday. Admission is free.


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