Secret Decoder Rings · 13 July 2019

Alberti Cipher Disk
by Augusto Buonafalce contributed by Antonio G Colombo
(Alterations: size and transparency changed)
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Whatever happened to secret decoder rings?

Back when I was a kid in the dark ages, we all had secret decoder rings. Okay. Not everybody had them. After all, if they did, we could never send secret messages to our friends who had those secret decoder rings. Everybody would be in on the secrets. But we did have them. We might have even used them to write a message or two with them.

Okay. Secret decoder rings were not that special. They were just rings with two sets of rings of the alphabet on them. The one ring was fixed and the other ring twirled around. If you wanted to just have no code, you just lined up the A on one ring with the A on the other ring. There is no point in that, but if you ever did write a secret message, you would want to line up the A with the other A so that nobody could find out your cipher.

The real power of a secret decoder ring was when you twirled the outer ring. You lined up a different letter with the A and you could make your secret code. Line up the B with the A and you got one code. Line up the C with the A and you got something completely different. You could write notes to people and if somebody (ostensibly the enemy, who might or might not have been teachers) got ahold of it, they could not read it. At least not without the secret decoder ring and knowing what letter matched up with A.

What we did not know then (or maybe we did but just ignored it) was that all you needed to know how to do was add or subtract to decode those secret messages. And you needed to know what letter matched up with A so you could determine how many letters to subtract to get to the correct letter. So when somebody found that message that said:

Nz eph buf nz tipf.

All they would need to know is that A was lined up with B and they could decode the message and find that the original was:

My dog ate my shoe.

Of course, back in those days, we would never write such a note. After all, secret codes were meant for personal secrets not for daily happenings. Or even silly messages. No. Secret decoder rings and secret codes were for special things. Like:

Yjcv ctg aqw jcxkpi hqt uwrrgt cpf kh kv ku iqqf, ecp K eqog qxgt?

Which is of course:

What are you having for supper and if it is good, can I come over?

(The A would be lined up with the C to encode or decode that message with the secret decoder ring.)

Of course, these days, the NSA, CIA, FBI, and the kid next door could decipher the messages I have coded into this blog post. They would not even need a secret decoder ring.

I guess people have gotten more sophisticated these days. Or maybe they are just better at adding and subtracting. At any rate, secret decoder rings are a thing of the past that we just read about or see in old books or movies, like A Christmas Story. (Make sure to drink your Ovaltine.) Even so, I will leave you with one last thought:

Whoo brxu iulhqgv wr uhdg PhglrfuhPdq.frp.

Get out that old secret decoder ring. (Or just subtract three. Or just look here: Tell your friends to read

© 2019 Michael T. Miyoshi

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