Finding the cipher key

Each of the code disks contains a good helping of strange characters – a mixture of squares, circles, and other letter-like shapes.

The creators of the code disks could have made up a completely new set of symbols to encipher the plaintext, or they could have used an existing set. I was hoping that they’d used an existing language – deciphering an invented one would be more difficult – so the first place I visited was Omniglot, the place to go if you see an unfamiliar language or script. It didn’t take long before I’d found the alphabet used by the Time Trail disks. It’s the Utopian alphabet, invented by Sir Thomas More:

Omniglot screen grab

Sir Thomas More was an English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman and noted Renaissance humanist, councillor to Henry VIII, and Lord High Chancellor of England from 1529 to 1532. After arguing with Henry about the King’s separation from the Catholic Church and his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he was tried for treason, convicted, and beheaded.

In his novel Utopia of 1516, More describes the fictional state of Utopia, located on an island somewhere in the New World, and includes a specimen of the Utopian alphabet and its poetry. He explains the lack of widespread travel to Utopia by saying that, during the first mention of the land, someone had coughed during the announcement of the exact longitude and latitude.

Here’s what the island and its language looks like in the original book (courtesy of the Universitätsbibliothek Bielefeld).

Thomas more utopia

And here are some extracts from the Wikipedia entry that illustrate why the word “Utopia” means what it does today (an unrealisable society based on idealism):

Each city has 6000 households, consisting of between 10 and 16 adults. There is no private property on Utopia, with goods being stored in warehouses and people requesting what they need. There are also no locks on the doors of the houses, which are rotated between the citizens every ten years. Agriculture is the most important job on the island. Every person is taught it and must live in the countryside, farming for two years at a time, with women doing the same work as men. Parallel to this, every citizen must learn at least one of the other essential trades: weaving (mainly done by the women), carpentry, metalsmithing and masonry. There is deliberate simplicity about these trades; for instance, all people wear the same types of simple clothes and there are no dressmakers making fine apparel. All able-bodied citizens must work; thus unemployment is eradicated, and the length of the working day can be minimised: the people only have to work six hours a day (although many willingly work for longer).

Slavery is a feature of Utopian life and it is reported that every household has two slaves. The slaves are either from other countries or are the Utopian criminals. These criminals are weighed down with chains made out of gold. The gold is part of the community wealth of the country, and fettering criminals with it or using it for shameful things like chamber pots gives the citizens a healthy dislike of it. It also makes it difficult to steal as it is in plain view. The wealth, though, is of little importance and is only good for buying commodities from foreign nations or bribing these nations to fight each other. Slaves are periodically released for good behaviour. Jewels are worn by children, who finally give them up as they mature.

Other significant innovations of Utopia include: a welfare state with free hospitals, euthanasia permissible by the state, priests being allowed to marry, divorce permitted, premarital sex punished by a lifetime of enforced celibacy and adultery being punished by enslavement. Meals are taken in community dining halls and the job of feeding the population is given to a different household in turn. Although all are fed the same, Raphael [the fictional traveller who describes Utopia] explains that the old and the administrators are given the best of the food. Travel on the island is only permitted with an internal passport and any people found without a passport are, on a first occasion, returned in disgrace, but after a second offence they are placed in slavery. In addition, there are no lawyers and the law is made deliberately simple, as all should understand it and not leave people in any doubt of what is right and wrong.

There are several religions on the island: moon-worshippers, sun-worshippers, planet-worshippers, ancestor-worshippers and monotheists, but each is tolerant of the others. Only atheists are despised (but allowed) in Utopia, as they are seen as representing a danger to the state: since they do not believe in any punishment or reward after this life, they have no reason to share the communistic life of Utopia, and will break the laws for their own gain. They are not banished, but are encouraged to talk out their erroneous beliefs with the priests until they are convinced of their error.

Anyway, we might have found the key (or, in traditional NSA parlance, the cryptovariable) that lets us decipher the encrypted text:


There are 22 symbols matching 22 letters, and the letters “j”, “v”, “w”, and “z” are missing.

Let’s try it out on one of the disks. Here’s T3:1/8:

T3 1 8 a

"r e u s i n t i m"

T3 1 8 b

"u n g s n e u? e r"

T3 1 8 c

"f u l l e n s n a"

All of which is promising, but not completely understandable. I’m puzzled by the symbol I’ve decoded as “u?” — it’s the character like a “u” (a square with a bar on the left) and yet it’s rotated 90 degrees clockwise (and making a small “u” shape, confusingly).

Sticking the strings together:

"reusintim ungsneu?er fullensna"

Trying a different order:




And of those, the most promising is the third. Let’s guess that “u?” is a “v”:


which could almost be the middle of a sentence written by Thomas More or Shakespeare. In the original Utopia, the same symbol is used for “V” and “U” (as in old English, where “Vtopos” is actually “Utopos”). Here’s the Wikipedia again:

In accordance with 16th-century typographical custom, the letters v and u marked a distinction in position, not sound; v was used at the beginnings of words and u elsewhere, but the same letters could represent the sounds of either u or v.

Obviously the writing on a single disk is just a part of a longer sentence or poem. So I’ll have to decode all the other disks before I get much further!


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