A little over a year ago, I came across a text that contained a puzzle that I was fairly certain I could definitively say was the very first puzzle hunt ever with the first puzzle hunt-style puzzle. Pretty exciting find for an amateur puzzle hunt historian!
But before I typed up anything, I decided that since it was coming time for another Game Control Summit, maybe I would present this amazing archeological find. I even had a rough outline of how I would present it, teasing the audience with little bits of this puzzle, while recounting the different steps of puzzle hunt history. I wanted to see if anybody would recognize it and how long it would take. I thought it would be fun and educational. Hopefully, the audience would too.
Of course, there was no GC Summit in 2015.
It's a good thing, too, because my presentation would have been wrong1. I just recently – as in a few days ago recently – found a puzzle hunt-style puzzle that pre-dates the one I was going to use by three years. And because it was at the dawn of the age of using encrypted messages as puzzles, I don't think it can go back any earlier than that.
Cryptography Before Puzzles
Before a certain time period, coded messages were almost exclusively used to communicate secret information – usually military or political – between two parties, hoping to prevent other parties from getting that information. They were not, generally, a source of entertainment.2
All that changed with Edgar Allan Poe in 1840.
I hadn't known of his interest in cryptography, how he changed it from a necessary part of secret communications to a form of intellectual fun. He challenged his readers – who at the time looked on cryptographers with a sense of awe and those who could break codes as magicians – to send him their own encoded text and he would decipher it. This proved an amazingly popular feature and became the source of the modern newspaper cryptogram.
First Printed Cryptogram
The very first cryptogram sent in after Poe's challenge was by one Clarence S. Brigham and was printed on January 15, 1840. The text of the cryptogram was as follows:
850;?9 O 9? 9 2ad; as 385 n8338d— ?† sod—3 —86a5: —8x 8537 95: 37od: o— h—8shn 3a sqd?8d— ?† —og37 —8x8539 95: Sod—3 o— 9 ?o—1708xah— 950?9n ?† 50537 —8x8537 95: Sod—3 o[[—]] 378 n9338d— 858?† ?† 38537 —8x8537 95: sod—3 H!!ads3— nos8 ?† sahd37 sos37 —8x8537 95: —og37 o—9 Sdho3 ?† sahd37 95: 80;737 o— 9 !a28dshn o?! n8?853 ?† 27an8 o5:otg38— 9 2038 ?95
Poe had encouraged his readers to send in "hieroglyphical writing", not just simple alphabetic ciphers. He claimed he could break all the codes sent him and backed his claim by actually doing it. The first one he solved to an interesting riddle (spoilers!):
I am a word of ten letters. My first, second, seventh and third is useful to farmers; my sixth, seventh, and first is a mischievous animal; my ninth, seventh, and first is the latter’s enemy; my tenth, seventh, and first supports life; my fourth, fifth, seventh and sixth is a fruit; my fourth, fifth and eighth is a powerful implement; my whole indicates a wise man.
As a rule, I don't like riddles. They end up being a "what have I got in my pocket?" conundrum or basically, guess what the riddler is thinking. This riddle, though, has several checks built in, so I'd say it's fairer than most. One or two right guesses, especially about the animals, will set you on your way. (I'm not sure how the thing useful to farmers could be specific enough to warrant a solution, but I don't have the historical context.)
In the end, this cryptogram solves to a single word, "TEMPERANCE". That format, an encoded message that solved to a single word, rang a bell.
By coincidence, I've been trying to write a How To Write A BANG Puzzle article for the BANG website3 and in it described how to write a simple BANG puzzle: "Create a simple substitution cipher, encode a crossword clue, and have the answer to that clue be the answer to the puzzle."
Crazy how similar that description ended up being like Clarence S. Brigham's little clue. It compares almost exactly the admittedly bare and almost "I'll know it when I see it" example of a puzzle-hunt style puzzle that I presented in separate location and time.
It's hard to argue with myself.4 I am fairly confident that this is the very first publically printed puzzle hunt-style puzzle in history. His puzzle was at the dawn of the age of hidden messages being used for fun. Of course, it was not intended to be part of a puzzle hunt; it's more similar to the Shinteki Puzzle of the Month. A version used in an actual hunt would have to wait a few years.
1The subject of my original conjecture for the earliest puzzle hunt puzzle is planned as an post for next week.
2 Monks in medieval times also played around with encryptions as a form of entertainment, but I could find no details on their workings, apart from that they liked to anagram things a lot.
3 Not that I am anywhere close to being a qualified expert to write such an article; I am hoping such experts will take a look at said page and remove/rewrite/improve it to give better advice to a beginning puzzle writer.
4 Actually, it's all too easy. I do it all the time.