Knowledge is Power: Shakespeare, Bacon, & Modern Cryptography

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Knowledge is Power: Shakespeare, Bacon, & Modern Cryptography

Currently re-igniting the Shakespeare authorship controversy is Roland Emmerich’s new movie Anonymous, which posits that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays. With the filmmakers presenting themselves as “iconoclastic heroes of intellectual honesty” (Syme), and academics and bibliophiles of all types understandably up-in-arms in response, this 150-year-old battle seems a no-win situation. But that doesn’t mean there’s no silver lining. In a fascinating and little-known by-way of history, the authorship controversy led directly to some of the most important 20th-century advances in a seemingly unrelated field: cryptography.

The belief that Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him originated in the mid 19th century, coinciding with an upsurge in his popularity and with the Victorian interest in puzzles and mysteries. Though more than 70 candidates have been proposed as the true author, for many years the most popular option was the natural philosopher and politician Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626).


As a young man Bacon lived for several years in France, where he studied statecraft and learned about cryptography, a field in which that nation was leading the rest of Europe. He developed his own “biliteral” cipher, which used the letters a and b to generate the entire alphabet, like this:

a = aaaaa

b = aaaab

c = aaaba

d = aaabb

… and so on. But if used outright this was still identifiable as a code and could be broken. Instead, Bacon needed to disguise the fact that the message was in code, and the power of his cipher lies in his realisation that a and b don’t have to be letters–they can be anything that can be divided into two classes. For example, regular text and bold text. To warn a secret agent to “fly”, Bacon could send a message saying the opposite:

do not go til i come

aabab ababa babba


Here the words “do not go til I come” are meaningless to the intended recipient; all that matters is the pattern of plain and bold text, where plain letters stand in for a and bold letters for b, which in turn code for the true message. The cipher was ingeniously flexible, meaning that Bacon could “make anything signify anything”. Poetry, numbers, musical notation, even a drawing or a group of objects could disguise a secret message.

Though Bacon developed his cipher in the 1570s it wasn’t fully published until his first philosophical work, The Advancement of Learning, appeared in its Latin edition of 1623. He did, however, discuss ciphers in general in the first edition of 1605, and in the reproduced passage below he explains that anything may signify anything – “omnia per omnia” – by “infoulding”, or encoding, it:

The Advancement of Learning 1623

Elizabeth Gallup

Elizabeth Gallup

Returning to Shakespeare, one of the most well-known Baconians, an American school teacher named Elizabeth Gallup (1838–1934), became intrigued by the biliteral cipher. She believed that Bacon had used it to encode secret messages in the printed versions of the Shakespearean texts, with subtle differences between typefaces being the key to the cipher (the difficulties this would have presented to early modern printers seem to have been overlooked). To Gallup, the biliteral cipher proved that Bacon was not only the author of Shakespeare’s plays, but also the son of Queen Elizabeth and brother of the Earl of Essex, and that he had written works attributed to Christopher Marlowe and other authors, as well as five previously unknown tragedies based on contemporary events. She even travelled to London in the belief that the missing manuscripts were still hidden in the neighbourhood of Islington.

At the beginning of the 20th century a wealthy and eccentric Baconian named George Fabyan founded the Riverbank Institute, a private research organisation housed on his estate in Geneva, Illinois. In addition to departments investigating medicine and agricultural science, there would be an American Academy of Baconian Literature, which Elizabeth Gallup was hired to direct. Here she set out to research the biliteral cipher using new photographic techniques, and began producing books and articles explaining her work.

Photos of the Riverbank Laboratories

Photos of the Riverbank Laboratories and the equipment used to investigate the biliteral cipher in early modern texts.

In 1915 a young biologist named William F. Friedman was hired to run Riverbank’s Department of Genetics, but found himself drawn instead to Gallup’s department. As a child he had been introduced to cryptography by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug”, and he was interested in the bibliographical and and photographic methods the team used. He was also attracted to Gallup’s young assistant, Elizebeth Smith, herself an expert cryptographer. Once he began working with the Baconians it became apparent that Friedman had “an intuitive grasp of cipher systems that must have been breathtaking” (Sherman). Soon he was creating many of the cryptographic images used in the department’s publications, as well as producing his own work such as the first description of the index of coincidence, an important tool in code-breaking.

At the outbreak of the First World War Riverbank was the only institution in the United States with expertise in cryptography, and in a short time William and Elizebeth were cracking codes for the war effort and training the US military’s first unit of elite cryptographers. In a beautiful example of the power of the Baconian cipher, Friedman had his recruits pose for a group photograph that used their bodies to encode the phrase “knowledge is power” (click here to see a decoded version of the photograph – the soldiers facing the camera represent a and those facing away represent b).

William Friedman with an AT&T cipher machine

William Friedman with an AT&T cipher machine.

In May 1917 William and Elizebeth Smith married, and in 1918 he volunteered for military service, serving as the chief cryptographer to General Pershing. After the war the couple moved to Washington D. C., where both played important roles in the development of government cryptanalysis (a term that Friedman had himself coined). Friedman became chief cryptanalyst for the War Department in 1921. He helped develop the United States’ most important cipher machine (SIGBA) and his numerous books and articles formed the foundation of modern, scientific cryptography. Elizebeth worked for the War Department and the Navy, and later during Prohibition for the Treasury, where she cracked bootleggers’ codes. William Friedman’s greatest success came at the outbreak of the Second World War, when his team broke the Japanese code PURPLE, allowing the US to intercept high-level Japanese diplomatic communications (including the order to cease negotiations that preceded the attack on Pearl Harbor). After the war he worked for the new National Security Administration, and retired in 1956, after more than thirty years as the government’s leading cryptographer.

William and Elizebeth’s work came full-circle  in the 1950s, when they turned their attention back to Shakespeare and produced The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, a masterful work on the Baconian controversy. Published in 1957, it conclusively demolished the theory that any encoded messages are present in early editions of Shakespeare. Despite being debunked, the early Riverside publications that gave “the world’s greatest cryptographer” (Kahn) his start are highly sought-after by modern book collectors, and we were lucky enough to had two of these volumes in stock:

The Keys to Deciphering the Greatest Work of Sir Francis Bacon. Geneva, IL: Riverbank Laboratories, 1916.

Fundamental Principles of the Baconian Ciphers and Application to Books of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Geneva, IL: Riverbank Laboratories, 1916.

Many of Riverbank’s publications were produced in unusual formats using materials suggestive of  17th-century England, such as the the light-brown reverse calf in the image above. The Riverbank team also took advantage of new photographic techniques, and many of the pages in these books are reproduced entirely photographically rather than by traditional printing methods. Originally published in very in low numbers, these fragile materials made the books even less likely to survive, and they are rare today, with only five copies of Fundamental Principles of the Baconian Ciphers known to be held institutionally.

Title page.

The Baconian Bi-Literal Cipher.

An explanation of Bacon’s cipher (click to enlarge). Note William Friedman’s signature on the lower right – this appears on many of the pages that he created for these publications.

Examples of the purported a and b letterforms in the works of Shakespeare.

Elizabeth Gallup’s theory rested on the use of two different types in the early editions of Shakespeare. Much of the The Keys for Deciphering the Greatest Works of Sir Francis Bacon is given over to analyzing the two forms of each letter. Unfortunately for her theory, it was common for early modern printers to use a variety of type, not all of which was identical. And it would have been almost impossible for the compositors to identify tiny variations in the letters while setting the type.

Example of a Bi-Formed Alphabet.

The Bi-Formed Alphabet Classifier.

The Bi-Formed Alphabet Classifier

The two removable guides shown above were meant to be used while reading the Shakespearean texts, for quick and easy identification of the letter-forms. Both include Friedman’s signature.

The cipher as used in the list of principal actors.

On the left, the original catalogue of Shakespeare’s works, and on the right, Gallup’s “updated” list.

Though it doesn’t make the authorship controversy any less troublesome (or the film Anonymous any less laughable) we can take some comfort in thanking Bacon and his followers for many of the cryptographic breakthroughs of the 20th-century. As James Shapiro writes in Contested Will, “…Mrs. Gallup never achieved the fame [she] sought, but their work on ciphers helped win a war”.

To learn more about these subjects you can explore the resources outlined below:

  • How to Make Anything Signify Anything is an excellent piece by William H. Sherman published in the winter 2010/11 issue of Cabinet magazine. It contains a more detailed discussion of the bilateral cipher and of Friedman’s work at Riverbank, as well as some excellent photographs (and the Knowledge is Power photo is available as a poster). Sherman is also the author of two of my favourite book history publications, John Dee and Used Books.
  • The Friedmans’ interest in books extended to the mysterious Voynich manuscript, which they spent much of their free time trying to decode.
  • Academic and blogger Holger Syme has written several excellent pieces on Anonymous and the Shakespeare controversy, particularly People Being Stupid About Shakespeare & Enough Already. His RSS feed is a must for anyone interested in the early modern era.
  • Contested Will, by James Shapiro, examines the origins, history, and cultural implications of the authorship controversy. Shapiro has also written an excellent take-down of Anonymous published in the New York Times on 16 October.
  • The Shakespeare Authorship page is a comprehensive collection of resources on the authorship controversy, with the editors on the Stratfordian side.
  • One of the world’s most famous unsolved codes is the CIA’s Kryptos sculpture, which remains uncracked by even the brightest minds in the security field.

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1 Comment

  1. ACMEScience » Blog Archive » The Internet Maths Aperiodical – temporarily a periodical

    December 23, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    […] it’s more fun being a mathematician. So here’s a blog post about a theory that Francis Bacon was the real author of Shakespeare’s œuvre and hid encoded […]

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