The code of Charles Dickens’ shorthand has been cracked by computer programmers, solving a 160-year-old mystery

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We can describe Charles Dickens’ writing in many ways, but never as unfathomable. He was the most popular novelist of his time, writing for the widest possible audience, including his stories in newspapers before putting them on the covers. This hardly prevented him from demonstrating a mastery of the English language, the mark of which is still visible in our own rhetoric and literary prose more than 150 years after his death. But Dickens wrote both publicly and privately, and in the latter case he could write quite privately: in documents intended only for his own eyes, he used a shorthand which he called the “handwriting of the devil” and which had long been devilish impenetrable to scholars.

Dickens “taught a difficult shorthand system called” brachygraphy and wrote of the experience in his semi-autobiographical novel, David Copperfieldcall it a ‘wild shorthand mystery,’” says The Dickens Code, a website dedicated to solving that mystery.

A former court reporter: “Dickens used shorthand all his life, but as he used the system, he changed it too. So the brackets, lines, circles and squiggles on the page are very hard to decipher.” So the Dickens Code project offered to anyone who could write their shorthand an amount of £300 – which may not seem like much, but imagine what the amount would have been in Dickens’s day.

Moreover, the cryptography enthusiasts of the internet hardly need an incentive to work on code as long unbroken as this one. “The contest winner, Shane Baggs, a computer technical support specialist from San Jose, California, had never read a Dickens novel,” writes Jenny Gross of the New York Times. Mr. Baggs, who worked on the text for about six months, mostly after work, said he first learned about the contest through a group on Reddit dedicated to cracking codes and finding hidden messages.

The document being decrypted is a copy of a letter dated 1859, the year Dickens serialized A tale of two cities† Write to London times editor John Thaddeus Delane: “Dickens says a newspaper clerk was wrong in turning down an ad he wanted in the paper and promoting a new literary publication, asking again if it may be published,” Gross said. This seemingly trivial incident inspires the kind of “strong, direct language in the 19th century that showed the writer was angry.” While 70 percent of this exceedingly bad-tempered letter has now been deciphered, The Dickens Code still has work to do and continues to enlist the help of volunteers to do it, albeit without the prize money now believed to be in the hands of Baggs. Let’s hope he uses it on the finest possible set of Dickens’ collected works.

Related content:

An Animated Introduction to the Life and Literary Works of Charles Dickens

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Stream a 24-hour playlist of Charles Dickens stories, featuring classic recordings by Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles and more

Why did Leonardo da Vinci write backwards? A look at the “mirror writing” of the ultimate renaissance man

Alice in WonderlandHamletand A Christmas song Written in shorthand (circa 1919)

Charles Dickens (Channeling Jorge Luis Borges) created a fake library, with 37 wittyly invented book titles

Colin Marshall, based in Seoul, writes and broadcaststs on cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter books about cities, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in the cinema† Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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