The Fraternal Order of Fake
Eye Doctors
An ancient manuscript, an indecipherable lan-
guage, a secret society: These are not plot points
from Dan Brown’s next novel, but the fi ndings of
researchers at the University of Southern Cali-
fornia (USC) in Los Angeles and Uppsala Uni-
versity in Sweden. Led by USC natural language
researcher Kevin Knight, the team cracked a
ciphered code to uncover the 250-year-old
writings of a German secret society.
Little is known about the origins of the 105-
page Copiale Cipher. But early this year, after
giving a talk on using code-breaking tech-
niques in language translation software, Knight
received a copy of the book from a colleague. He
and his team picked out patterns among 75,000 abstract symbols and fed the information into
a language processing program. The coded language turned out to be German, obscured by sym-
bols representing three-letter combinations or doubled consonants.
After 4 months, a translation emerged, outlining initiation rituals for a secret society.
Strangely, the text references ophthalmological equipment that would have been outdated
by the 1730s—approximately when the group was active. “We concluded that it was basically
a group of people who got together and pretended to be eye doctors,” Knight says. The code
breakers presented their fi ndings at an Association for Computational Linguistics meeting in
Portland, Oregon, in June.
The text also explores the natural rights of man, but its secrecy probably owes more to secret
societies being in vogue in the early 1700s than political intrigue, Knight says. “If you’re in a secret
society, writing in code is just one of those things you do.” Knight’s team is currently targeting
other unsolved ciphers such as the Zodiac Killer letters and the 15th century Voynich manuscript