Recently, a team of students at Brown University was able to crack the secret code scribbled in the margins of century old book. The coded message turned out to be the last known theological work of Roger Williams, an early proponent of religious freedom and founder of Providence Plantation, in what is now Rhode Island. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with Lucas Mason Brown, who helped break the code.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, the real story of a mystery more than three centuries in the making. It revolves around a book, a secret code, and one of America's most prominent colonists. The book has no writing on its battered, leather cover or spine. The title page is missing. The printed text holds nothing of note, but every inch of the margins, the paragraph breaks - every bit of free space was filled with strange writing in quill and ink. The handwritten passages were too messy for a computer to decipher, so the code would have to be broken manually.
And that is just what Lucas Mason Brown, and a small team of undergraduates, have done. Lucas Mason Brown joins me now, from Brown University; where he studies math and the philosophy of science, and where the mysterious book is housed. Thanks for being on the program, Lucas.
LUCAS MASON BROWN: Thanks, Rachel, for having me on.
MARTIN: So how did you hear about this book, and the code?
BROWN: Well, I was actually tipped off by an article in the student newspaper. After several attempts to decipher it, they opened up the challenge to undergraduates. And the student newspaper ran a short article about that.
MARTIN: So what did it look like? What did the code actually consist of?
BROWN: So the core alphabet consists of 28 different symbols, most of which are derived from Greek and Hebrew symbols. And a lot of the symbols are designed to be very easy to write. Most consist of one or two strokes, at most. We learned that this code was based on a popular, 17th century shorthand system; and that Roger Williams had effectively adapted this system to suit his own, personal needs.
MARTIN: So let's talk a little bit about this. Roger Williams, who - for people who don't know, was a theologian; and founder of Providence Plantation, in what is now known as the state of Rhode Island, right?
BROWN: Correct, yeah.
MARTIN: What was the message he had encrypted?
BROWN: Well, so the notes in this book are divided into three sections. And the first and third sections are really not that interesting. The middle section is really the meat of our discovery. And it consists of an original, unpublished theological essay by Williams, on the topic of infant baptism.
MARTIN: As I understand it, he was proposing that if someone is to be baptized, they should do so of their own accord. They need to be older, to make that decision on their own.
BROWN: Exactly. He was a proponent of the baptism of believers.
MARTIN: What was your response when you found out that this code had something to do with Roger Williams? I mean, is this someone you even knew about? Are you a history buff?
BROWN: No, I'm not at all. In fact, I knew more about the 20th century composer Roger Williams, than Roger Williams the founder of Rhode Island, when his name first came up.
BROWN: But I was eager to learn more about him. And that's been another amazing part of this project - you know, delving into the history.
MARTIN: Lucas Mason Brown is an undergraduate at Brown University. He helped crack the code that led the discovery of the last known theological writing of Roger Williams, the founder of Providence Plantation, now known as the state of Rhode Island. Thanks so much, Lucas.
BROWN: Thank you so much, Rachel.
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MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.