Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzle 1

About a month ago, Ken Jennings (of Jeopardy fame) and Smithsonian Magazine (of museum fame) began the Great American History Puzzle, a month-long online puzzle hunt with an American history theme. Given my newfound love of the puzzle hunt and my longtime Ken Jennings fandom, I knew I had to participate.

Here's my recap of the puzzle, including all the stupid things I tried along the way, the eventual solution and how I arrived at it, and whether I learned anything awesome about American history from each one (usually yes). Obviously, this series of posts contains spoilers, so read at your own risk if you haven't finished the puzzle yet and still want to on your own.

Cover puzzle

The first step was to buy a copy of the magazine and get to decoding a secret message. "Consult Jefferson's greatest creation," we were told, to decipher the message, a series of paired numbers in the form (x-y). Wondering if "Jefferson's greatest creation" was a well-known phrase that I was supposed to recognize, I Googled it. One thing led to another, and eventually I started reading all about the wheel cypher, or Jefferson disk. Yes, I thought, this makes sense because we're solving a cipher. But the more I tried, the less I could make the puzzle code fit the form of a Jefferson disk.

After again consulting the Wikipedia page for Thomas Jefferson, I decided I was perhaps making the puzzle too difficult. To an average American, Thomas Jefferson's greatest creation wouldn't be an obscure (though advanced for its time) cryptographic tool, it would be the Declaration of Independence. Even better, the Declaration begins with "When" and ends with "Honor," another of the puzzle's clues. Converting each number pair to a letter, where x was the number of the word in the Declaration and y was the number of the letter in the word (so 5-2 meant the second letter of the fifth word, and so on) gave the complete decoded message:

Famous last words will help you trace the hidden American icon on this magazine's cover. The Bible verse on the icon leads to two page numbers. Read the red characters there backwards to uncover the password.

I searched for Jefferson's last words to no avail: they're commonly purported to be something along the lines of "it is the Fourth" or "is it the Fourth of July?" but no two sources seemed to agree. The search did turn up a related set of last words: John Adams', which were "Thomas Jefferson survives." Tracing those letters on the magazine cover gave an outline of the Liberty Bell. From there, a quick search for "Liberty Bell Bible verse" pointed to Leviticus 25:10, and the red characters on pages 25 and 10 of of the magazine, taken backwards, spelled out "1NATION," the first password.

In fact, before I decoded the message, I did notice conspicuous red characters on a few of the pages of the magazine. It would have been tough to brute-force the answer based solely on those red numbers and letters, but it may have been possible for an especially motivated puzzler.

Though this wasn't one of the hunt's more difficult puzzles, it was one of the more involved, sending me from the magazine to the Declaration of Independence, then to a search for famous last words, back to the magazine, to the Liberty Bell, and finally to the magazine for a third time. That complexity allowed for a few cool American history tidbits, including the Bible verse on the Liberty Bell and Jefferson's hobby as a cryptographer.