Researchers have used state-of-the-art machine translation software — and some old-fashioned hunches — to crack the code used by a secret society in Germany three centuries ago. The results shed light on the tricks of the cryptographic process as well as on the bizarre history of such societies, which were all the rage in the 18th century.

It turns out that the 105-page, 75,000-character manuscript, known as the Copiale Cipher, provided a detailed description for setting up initiation ceremonies — including the techniques used to throw a scare into the initiates. It also revealed the methods that members used to identify each other in the outside world, and delved into the comparisons and rivalries surrounding Masonic-like rites in different countries.

“This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies,” Kevin Knight, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, said in a news release issued today. “Historians believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, and a big part of the reason is because so many documents are enciphered.”

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