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Secret Messages: Using Codes and Ciphers

Liz's advice on finance, credit, frugal living practices, & anything monetary is from the 'school of hard knocks,' research, & experience.

The Easy Stuff

Codes, ciphers and cryptology are names for messages disguised by means of various substitutions of one thing to represent another, whether words, letters, symbols, or numbers.

By the time any child is in junior high school--what they refer to as "middle school" these days-- they have probably mastered at least one type of a cryptic substitution code at its most basic level.

Usually this is done for the purpose of foiling the teacher should they get caught passing notes in class. I know I traveled that road, usually in classes with a long-winded, boring teacher. Hey--it was a defense against falling asleep from the monotone monologue. (Falling asleep in class would probably have brought a stiffer punishment than passing the notes!)

Oh, well, those days are far behind me, but I still remember them with nostalgic fondness and a naughty sense of fun. I was inspired to write this slightly more personal memoir because of the great coverage of the topic by another writer. He wrote about the military uses of the craft of codes, and his excellent descriptions triggered these memories.

I am tackling the fun and games angle.

Elementary School Cipher


The First Chart

The very first substitution code I ever learned was in grade school. Almost every child carried around the code sheet to translate the text. In retrospect, I doubt any teacher on the planet would have been fooled. Kids seem to be notoriously naïve in thinking that they can put something of that nature past their parents or teachers who have "been there; done that," before their kids were even a remote thought.

We all had these hand-drawn charts, just like the one above, to 'crack' our coded messages, and we thought we were some kind of special secret agents! Some of us even used them enough to memorize the sequence and no longer needed to refer to the chart. Not admitting guilt or anything--I'm just saying.

Using this particular cipher, then, here's a simple coded message for you:


A Little Later On...

That was elementary school. By the time I hit high school, a friend and I invented our own more "sophisticated" coding system. We stuck with the alphabet letters,used in their correct sequence and with un-altered spellings but we made twisted caricatures out of the letters. We thought we were taking our cue from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, of all things! Ah,youth!

Oh, how clever we thought we were! Regular Dick Tracys--on the distaff side! Shoot--we missed the boat! We should have gone into business and made our fortunes selling secret code books and sponsoring treasure hunts on the backs of cereal boxes and comic books!

This one does get a bit trickier than the previous cipher, because not everyone's handwriting is the same, or even always legible, so variations in the figures occur.

Using the master code, below,try it out yourself for grins and giggles.

"Hieroglyphics" Master Code


More Advanced Things

Briefly, there are many more kinds of ciphers and codes than can be covered in a single article, or even a few articles. It is an entire course of study unto itself. At its most sophisticated, it has ties to national security, espionage and other military-type applications.

There was the automated "enigma" machine of World War II, and even that was somewhat simplistic, as it was soon enough figured out by the allies. There have been books written and movies made about just this one aspect of that war.

The Navajo "Wind Talkers"

If you have seen the movie, "Wind Talkers," that covered another aspect of wartime secret code, in which an ancient and not-well-known language, that of the Native-American Navajo, was used as the basis for the code.

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However, it was not strictly the Navajo language; it used the language to create a cipher system, where words or sounds stood for English words, but no one trying to break the code had a clue about the Navajo, making it the only successful and unbroken code of its day.

The Wind Talkers Official Trailer

Jumbled, or Anagram Codes

Another form of code is fairly time-consuming both for the creator of the message and the recipient(s). Have you ever seen the "Jumbles" puzzles in the newspaper, in which there are a series of words which must be determined by means of a hint and a visual, usually a small cartoon? Within the solution boxes, certain letters are circled. These letters must then be unscrambled to reveal the solution. Minus the cartoon, it would be even harder.

The final solution is an anagram of the solved-for letters.

(An anagram is any word whose letters can be rearranged to form another word, using all of the same letters. For example, an anagram for "life" is "file.")

Bookish Codes

Yet another very complex kind of code involves a great deal of time on both ends. In this format, each party must own the identical set of books, same edition. Each book is assigned a letter or number as a master source code. Once the message is written, the creator selects a source book, and refers to certain pages, paragraphs and letters within the given book.

For example, let us say that a given book has been given a source master code of "A-1:" and with that, the recipient knows which book to use. He then sees: "17: 4: 25." That tells him the first letter of the message is to be found on page 17, 4th paragraph, 25th letter into the paragraph.

For "simplicity" (the term being relative) the coder would stick to a single source book, and the "A-1" designator would not appear for subsequent letters. Anyone trying to break the code would need not only the master list of source books, but also be sure they owned the exact same edition, or placements could be off.

In an even "easier" version of this, the final number would refer to the entire word located in the referenced source, page and paragraph, rather than just one of the letters.

Binary Code

The backbone supporting everything we are able to do with our computers is binary code

The backbone supporting everything we are able to do with our computers is binary code

Sneaking Into The Edge of Computer Language

Binary code: it runs all our computers. It is a language of only ones and zeroes, which the machine understands as on and off switches. A one is 'on,' a zero is 'off,' and that is the most basic, oversimplified explanation you are likely to find anywhere.

It is, of course, far more complex than that. There are multiple gazillions of those ones and zeros in even more combinations, telling the computer how to recognize plain-English input. (Or any other language, for that matter.) The people who invented binary code were geniuses to think of such a simple thing that could accomplish so many complex tasks, from writing these articles to making lightning-fast mathematical calculations and so much more.

Without binary code, none of us would be writing on Hub Pages, posting status updates on, Facebook, or indeed, even have such a thing as the World Wide Web.

Bear in mind that what follows is in no way REAL computer code; it is merely a basic illustration of how the system works in general.

— Liz

Back when my kids were in Girl Scouts, there was a merit badge for introduction to computer science. Of course, this was well before the era of Face Book or any other 'social media' platform. Computers were used for work, not play. This badge task explained binary code to only 5 places. That accounted for enough numbers to represent our entire 26-character alphabet. It works like this:

  • The code is read from right to left to determine place-number <----
  • Each place is valued as double it's neighbor to the right, and half its neighbor to the left (e.g., 16 8 4 2 1--almost as if you were reading the word "half" as being spelled backwards: "flah,")
  • zeros function as place-holders, just as in traditional numbering systems
  • For clarity, I've inserted spaces between the in-text examples. Spaces, however, are not used in the actual code.

Therefore, a string reading as follows: 0 0 0 0 1 has a value of 1. This corresponds to the first letter, "A."

The next value will be 2, represented as: 0 0 0 1 0 .. Remember, there are only ones and zeroes involved. It is the placement that determines the value. So, the "2" placement would equal the letter "B." and so on.

The next value to the left is 4, shown as: 0 0 1 0 0 (or "D").

Uh-oh...what happened to "C" you ask? There are no odd numbers save the first value!! Well, you have to do some addition within the code. Since we know that 2 + 1 = 3, we simply fill both the 1 value and the 2 value spots, thusly:

0 0 0 1 1 = "3" or "C."

After 4 comes 8, then 16, respectively: 0 1 0 0 0 , and 1 0 0 0 0. By using the addition of the place values, you can add up these values to represent all 26 letters of the alphabet. So, "Z" would be represented as: 1 1 0 1 0 (16 + 8 + 2 = 26).

A simple "hello" then, would look like this: 01000 00101 01100 01100 01111

At 5 digits per letter, this is a cumbersome code, and not easily cracked by anyone unfamiliar with binary numbering. Real computer code uses far more places than just 5 slots.

That said, please do not mistake me for a computer geek or techie. I am not. This code, as I have presented it here, is all I know of the matter, so please don't ask me any computer-related questions. Take those over to fellow author, Tony Lawrence!

Longevity And Usefulness of Codes

In the end, none of it truly matters. As long as there are code makers, there will be code breakers. The most sophisticated codes are useful for only a short time before someone figures them out, then they become relegated to the realm of games and entertainment. Only a single wartime code remained unbroken for the duration--that of the 'Wind Talkers" mentioned above.

© 2011 Liz Elias


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 06, 2013:

Hello, Paul Kuen,

I'm delighted you found the article useful--I've always had fun with this sort of thing. My late mother loved the cryptograms in the daily paper, and crossword puzzles, the harder, the better for her.

Perhaps I know "Caesar substitution" by a different name--perhaps those old cryptograms? It sounds like a very similar thing that mom would do--and letter frequency was one of her solution techniques.

Thanks so much for the votes and share!

Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on January 06, 2013:


This is a very interesting and useful hub. I have introduced Caesar substitution as a form of cipher to my 5th and 6th grade EFL classes. The kids really enjoyed using it and figuring out the cipher key by examining frequency of letters in messages. Voted up as interesting and sharing with followers.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on October 25, 2012:

Hello, BeatsMe--

LOL--yeah, well, it was more interesting than Civic class.. hee hee... is a brain exercise of sorts; and it can turn into a real career for those who stay on that path.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

BeatsMe on October 25, 2012:

lol. It looks like you were too busy as a kid cracking codes. :)

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on May 30, 2011:

Hello, Stephanie Henkel

How sad that your friends would not cooperate.

Getting caught--not fun. I "almost" got caught one time--managed to pass it off as pretending I had dropped a piece of paper. ;-)

Thanks for the comments, and I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.

Stephanie Henkel from USA on May 29, 2011:

How I would have loved some of your codes when I was in elementary school! I even went so far as to learn Morse Code. Unfortunately, my friends refused to memorize it, so I had no one to send my secret Morse coded messages to. It was all fun until I got caught passing a coded note in my 7th grade classroom...and the teacher figured it out! Thanks for a very fun hub.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on May 25, 2011:

Hi, Lucky Cats!

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I'm glad you found some fun memories of your own in the midst of my ramblings. ;-)

Pleased to be able to contribue to educational matters, as philosophy is "A day without learning something new is a day wasted."

Gosh--I sure hope I didn't inspire hackers! We have more than enough of those already! ;-) :-O

Kathy from Independence, Kansas on May 25, 2011:

this really takes me back, DMLizzy! We had codes from grade school on to high school, and Junior High, too...(middle school...what is THAT??). And the jumbles we find in the daily newspaper....LOVE those, and, for some reason, I'm really good at them! Oh, how we DID feel as if we were pulling the wool over the eyes of our teachers and, even other kids and, of course, parents! Had I not read this hub, I may have never ever thought of this part of silly & fun childhood.

Indeed, "simplicity" isn't so simple or, maybe I should say...the bookish codes are so time consuming! Who has/had the time to be flipping pages like that..can you imagine? In today's fast paced, have to have it right now, immediate gratification environment? Yikes!

You may not know entire code but, Lizzy, you have unmasked the mystery for me...I didn't how it 'worked,' I simply knew that computer code is comprised of only 1's and 0', upon reading your "cypherin'," I get it! WOW!!

Love the quote, "A secret is only a secret..." and I now shall visit the hubber you've recommende.

This is a GREAT one..for me, especially because, you've conjured up really neat memories and because you've 'broken the code' for me so that I, now, comprehend a little. WOW!! Thank you.

UP AWESOME USEFUL (who knows, maybe you've created some new computer geek wannabe's or "hackers r us."

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on April 26, 2011:

Hi, katiem2--

Glad you enjoyed, and hope you and your girls have a blast with this. It is a lot of fun. Thanks as well for the public shares! I must find & follow you on Twitter! ;-)

Katie McMurray from Ohio on April 26, 2011:

So cool my girls are gonna love this, they'll bring it back to middle school or junior high ;) and high school as my 14 year old is a freshman. Very delightful, I will have fun with this too. Thanks it's awesome gonna share on twitter and facebook. Rated up and all that is good! :) Katie

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on April 18, 2011:

RTalloni--You are quite correct. We have become far too dependent upon our "wonderful machines." Glad you enjoyed this bit of fluff! ;-)

RTalloni on April 18, 2011:

Just think, with one whack of our communications systems we would be back to handwritten secret coding. May be that we'd better not lose the talent!

Neat to read about. :) Thanks for sharing good stuff!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on April 17, 2011:

Hi, AmrilRadzman--thank you so much for stopping by & for the compliment! I agree--kids today don't seem to have much imagination anymore.

AmrilRadzman on April 17, 2011:

haha thanks for the credit. love your child hood days when passing notes via code. would say that kids in the old days are way creative than new one . great hub btw :D

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