Thomas Jefferson's 200-year-old letter exposed secret code ‘used to report treasure'

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A Founding Father of the US, Mr Jefferson served as the third President of the country at the start of the 19th century. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence, he was a proponent of democracy, republicanism, and individual rights, motivating American colonists to break from British rule and form a new nation. Following the American Revolution, Mr Jefferson pursued the nation’s shipping and trade interests against Barbary pirates and aggressive British trade policies. 

It was during this time that he reportedly invented his own enciphering device, the ‘Wheel Cypher’, to write important communications in code to his closest confidants. 

Author Buddy Levy revealed the inspiration behind the device during History’s ‘Decoded’ series.

He said: “When Thomas Jefferson was President he generated a method for producing secret codes that was so effective it was used for another 150 years. 

“He originally created it so he could trade messages with famous explorer Meriwether Lewis.”

The American soldier is best known for his role as the leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to cross the newly acquired western portion of the country after the Louisiana Purchase had been organised by Mr Jefferson.

Cryptographer David Kahn explained during the series how he investigated how the machine was used after uncovering a letter sent by Mr Jefferson during this voyage.

He said: “Apparently when the Lewis and Clark expedition went out, Thomas Jefferson gave them a cypher to send messages without anyone being able to read them.

“This was the purpose of the cypher system.

“In some cases, the simple systems were just a list of words and numbers opposite them.

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“But the more complicated ones had a key. And the letter that you wanted to put into the code you would down and across to find the cypher text letter.

“Down below is a message he tested to see whether Meriwether Lewis understood the system.” 

Incredibly, Mr Kahn had a replica of the device that the pair would have used to communicate with each other and showed how the code could be read.

He continued: “I have this wonderful device invented by Thomas Jefferson and it is very effective, an ingenious device that served to keep American Army communications secret until World War 2. 

“You have these 26 discs with an alphabet on each side. Each disc is numbered and lettered on each side.

“But the more complicated ones had a key. And the letter you wanted to put into the code you would go down and across to find the cypher text letter.

“You must have a key so both of you put them in the exact same order.”

The expert even speculated on what they may have discussed.

He said: “If Lewis found large deposits of gold, he would not have wanted to report on the location.

“Thieves would have wanted to steal those messages, so they were put into code and nobody would be able to read them.”

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