Secret Code Programming for Tweens

Secret Code Programming for Tweens

We’ve talked about computer coding, pushing around all those ones and zeroes in fancy formation, but what about ye olde fashyonede codyinge?  You know, when people had to send encrypted messages and didn’t have burner phones or access to the darknet or sophisticated programs to hide internet activity.

Okay, so like when I first started using the Internet.

Actually, I’m talking pre-Internet (the teens will be horrified by this concept.)  Pre-telephone, even.  My original secret code program was inspired by library participation in the Big Read from the NEA.  We were doing Edgar Allan Poe, and I was trying to find something that wasn’t “The Raven” to do some programming on.  In “The Gold-Bug” and a few other stories, secret code plays a large role, so I selected three increasingly difficult types of code to demonstrate and discuss.

You can do any type of code you like.  There’s the fun yet impractical “tattoo it on a slave’s head, let the guy’s hair grow, send him to your bud and the barber” method (props to the not-so-awesome Histiaeus for this idea).  Or the scytale, which is kind of like a variation on the whole Raiders of the Lost Ark staff height trick.

A scytale! Rhymes with “Italy”

But I chose some easier types of code: substitution, transposition, and pigpen cipher.

Substitution cipher is the easiest kind.  Say you write out the alphabet, and then underneath it, you write the alphabet backwards.  Therefore, “a” becomes “z” and so forth.  This is a pretty easy type of code to break, but it will give tweens confidence in their secret code abilities.

Transposition cipher is more secure, and thus a bit harder to create.  For a transposition cipher, you’d need a key to get you started.

Pigpen cipher might not be especially useful, but it was the tweens’ favorite one because it looks pretty cool when you write it out.



Following the grids above, you simply draw the shape around the corresponding letter.  So an “n” would be a box with a dot inside of it.

After an explanation of these codes, I let them work on messages to each other (library-appropriate, obviously).  You could also leave them messages in code and have them work it out.  I wrote out the first stanza of “The Raven” (I couldn’t escape it!) entirely in pigpen cipher, and it looked really cool.  This is a really easy, practically free program to run, and you could definitely make it an activity in your teen space if you have a whiteboard or chalkboard.

Images courtesy Wikimedia commons.


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