November 4, 2016

Here's Something Cool: Cypher Book

        From time to time I come across nifty things that catch my fancy, and I file them away for possible future sharing.  But many of them never seem to fit into a particular theme, or I don’t really have enough information for a substantive post, and I never end up sharing them after all.  Well, all that is about to end.  I hereby initiate a new category of blog posts: Here’s Something Cool!
        First up is a sixteenth century cypher machine in the shape of a book.  This is emblazoned with the arms of Henri II of France, so presumably was made for him or his agents, but more than that I cannot tell you.  The object is in the collection of the Musée Renaissance in the Chateau de’Écouen, but a search of the museum’s website reveals no additional pictures or information, so I am left with nothing but questions.  How was this cypher machine used?  Half the dials have Roman numerals, while the other half appear to be blank, except for a single C or crescent on each one.  The large dial on the left is marked with numerals, and spins within a ring of letters.  The whole thing is in the shape of a book.  Is it disguised as a book, or merely whimsically decorated in that shape?  Was it used for serious espionage, or novelty entertainment?  Who invented it and who made it?  Henri II was the inventor of the patent, or at least the first government to introduce the idea of patents for inventions.  Does this mean he was particularly interested in inventions, or particularly supportive of inventors?  If there’s a patent for this cypher machine, no one’s mentioned it.
        Henri’s mistress, favorite, and veritable co-ruler was Diane de Poitiers, whose emblem was the crescent moon.  It can hardly be coincidence that this device is decorated so lavishly with crescents, as spokes on the dials, etched between all the dials, and so on.  Does that indicate that Henri and Diane used this encoder for their private communication, or that it was made for Diane’s use in her own political and diplomatic endeavors, or simply that the craftsman figured Henri would be pleased to see Diane’s emblem along with his own?
        In another fun note, Henri II was the son of Francis I for whom, according to my fantasy, The Extraordinary Books of Doors were made.  Since Francis died before their completion, it was to Henri II that Sebastiano Serlio would have presented his magical masterpiece.  So, did Henri take after his father in having a particular predilection for magical devices disguised as ordinary books?  It certainly is fun to speculate.
        As for this Cool Thing, its design is beautiful, its workmanship is impressive, and its history is just a a big, fascinating question mark.

[Picture: French cypher machine in the shape of a book, between 1547-1559 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

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