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Cracking the Code

A mysterious message was found in a dress from the 1880s. Finally, the owner of the dress understands what it means.
A rust-colored, 19th century dress on a mannequin is alongside a wrinkled paper with several handwritten lines.
Sara Rivers Cofield

When antique collector Sara Rivers Cofield found strings of unrelated words written on two pieces of paper from the 1880s, she had no idea what they meant—and neither did many code experts. Now, the mystery has been solved. It turns out that Rivers Cofield’s mysterious messages were probably old-fashioned weather reports.

Rivers Cofield found the messages in a hidden pocket of an antique dress she’d purchased in 2013. The handwritten words didn’t make much sense together. In fact, they didn’t seem related at all. One line read, “Bismark omit leafage buck bank,” and there were many more like it. Perplexed, Rivers Cofield went online and asked for help. Clearly, this was some kind of code—but what code was it, and how could it be cracked? 

A wrinkled piece of paper with several handwritten lines.
Sara Rivers Cofield

The line “Bismark omit leafage buck bank,” can be seen in this piece of paper. What does it mean?

Many people who studied the messages said they believed the code was designed for transmitting telegraphic messages. Invented in the 1830s, the telegraph was a device that could be used to quickly send messages (called telegrams) over distances long before email, texting, or even the telephone existed. The instant messaging of its day, the telegraph offered a much faster form of communication than letter writing. People who sent telegrams had to pay by the word, so it was preferable to make messages as short as possible. Telegraphic codes allowed senders to communicate a full sentence using just one or two words.

But if the messages in the antique dress were written in telegraphic code, which telegraphic code was it? Hundreds of codes were developed by the military, the railroads, and many other companies.

Sara Rivers Cofield

In 2022, research computer analyst Wayne Chan figured it out. After seeing the handwritten words transcribed online, Chan looked through about 170 code books, searching for matches. He found nothing at first. Then, in a book about the history of the telegraph, Chan read about weather codes. These codes were game changers in their day. For the first time, people received information about storms and other weather events via telegram instead of being taken by surprise.

With help from a librarian at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Chan obtained a copy of a late 19th century weather code book used by the U.S. Army Signal Corps and realized that the messages found in the dress were weather reports. Hidden in those “nonsense” words, there was information about temperature, barometric pressure, precipitation, and more.

Who wore the dress and carried those weather reports? No one knows for sure, but Chan and Rivers Cofield speculate that it might have been an employee at the U.S. Army Signal Service in Washington, D.C.

That part of the case will probably remain unsolved.

Did You Know?

Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-hec-42815), © Fizkes/Dreamstime.com; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

According to the CTIA, an organization that represents the wireless industry, Americans send more than 63,600 text messages per second.

Speaking in Code

A weathered page shows a listing of words and phrases alongside their shortened, encoded equivalents.
Source: Evans Basic English Code, 1947; Photo illustration Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

This page is from a 1947 codebook called Evans Basic English. People could use many codes to make their telegrams shorter—and less expensive.

Telegraph codes didn’t just cut down on the cost of sending telegrams; they also helped keep information secure and private. To the untrained eye, some of these codes could be hard to decipher.

If the code shown above seems odd to you, imagine if someone from the 19th century took a time machine to the present day and saw an instant message or text message containing abbreviations like LOL, TIL, and BTW. Many such abbreviations date back to the early days of text messaging, when Short Message Service (SMS) messages were limited to 160 characters and texters had to get creative. 

Old-School Texts

© opal2—Creatas Video+/Getty Images Plus

Telegraph machines didn’t have keyboards with letters. So how did telegraph operators input messages?

Learn this and more at Britannica!

WORD OF THE DAY

cryptic

PART OF SPEECH:

adjective

Definition:

: difficult to understand : having or seeming to have a hidden meaning

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