The British Mission to Los Alamos and the Feynman Ciphers…

Jim Lyons has returned to battle against the unsolved Feynman Ciphers: but this time round he’s wondering whether one or more might employ some variant of the Hill cipher.

It’s possible but… given the fact that #1 was a straightforward transposition of Chaucerian English, I don’t honestly buy into the idea that the others will prove to be cryptographically exotic.

To my mind, whoever set the first cipher seems (if the much-repeated back story itself is not itself a jest) to have been far more interested in snickering into his beard about having pulled the wool over Richard Feynman’s sainted eyes than proving his depth of cryptographic reading. I’d agree he could conceivably have wheeled out a Hill + substitution cipher crypto mechanism, but surely the meta-point of the whole exercise was that it was supposed to be a Los Alamos in-joke at Feynman’s expense?

Los Alamos

The Feynman Ciphers surfaced on Usenet in 1987 while Feynman was still alive (though he died in 1988), so it seems fairly unlikely to me that these were composed then. Hence it seems likely to me, on the balance of probability, that they did come from his time at Los Alamos: perhaps someone who was there with Feynman might remember?

There’s a nice page full of Feynman’s reminiscences of his time there 1943-1945, but that didn’t immediately answer the question.

All the same, this quickly led mw to the very watchable Memoir of Los Alamos in World War II with Murray Peshkin on YouTube. Given that Peshkin worked with Feynman and is still very much alive, I thought it worth a shot asking if he remembered the appearance of any ciphers. So I emailed him. :-) His response:

This is the first I hear of the Feynman ciphers. Of course I looked the question up, but nothing I saw related to anything of which I know.

Sorry not to be helpful

Oh well… if you don’t ask, you don’t find out.

The British Mission

However, given that the plaintext to the first Feynman Cipher was from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it also struck me that the encipherer might well have been British. There was a sizeable British Mission at Los Alamos: the British had been working on an atomic research programme codenamed ‘Tube Alloys’ for some time, so had a bit of a head-start in the whole blowing-up-the-world race thing.

I couldn’t find a reasonable list of the British Mission personnel online, so decided to put one together: and here it is. If you have better biographies or links for any of the unlinked scientists, please let me know and I’ll update them here.

The British Mission to Los Alamos:
* James Chadwick (head of the mission)
* Egon Bretscher
* Boris Davison
* Anthony P. French
* Otto Robert Frisch
* Klaus Fuchs
* James Hughes
* Derrik J. Littler
* William G. Marley
* Donald G. Marshall
* Philip Burton Moon
* Rudolf Ernst Peierls
* William George “Bill” Penney
* George Placzek
* Michael J. Poole
* Joseph Rotblat
* Harold Sheard
* Tony Hilton Royle Skyrme (after whom skyrmions are named)
* Geoffrey Ingram Taylor
* Ernest W. Titterton
* James Leslie Tuck

And The #1 British Mission Scientist Linked To Feynman Was…

Klaus Fuchs: when Feynman’s wife was dying of tuberculosis, he borrowed Fuchs’ car to drive to her side at speed. Yes, Fuchs was a Communist who later admitted giving nuclear secrets to the Russians (and so went to jail). And despite being German, he spent a lot of time working in Edinburgh etc, so almost certainly was ‘Britainized’ to a large degree.

But did he make up the Feynman Challenge Ciphers? I don’t know. There were many other bachelors living in the Big House at Los Alamos: Fuchs and Feynman were just two.

Perhaps hints towards the answer will lie in one of the many autobiographies from the people involved, such as “Bird of Passage: Recollections of a Physicist” (Rudolf Peierls), or “What Little I Remember” (Otto Frisch): or indeed in Ferenc Morton Szasz’s British Scientists and the Manhattan Project: The Los Alamos Years.

Adelaide Small Ad Analysis…

Various Somerton Man bloggers and commenters seem to have got a bit feverish about “Clinic Distributors”, some even suggesting that it might be a euphemism for a clinic dealing with sexually transmitted diseases.

Let’s take a closer look at the constellation of ads placed in the Adelaide Advertiser by the Thomsons between 1947 and 1949 to see if we can reduce the temperature and get a bit more clarity…

Trove Adverts

Trove holds plenty of small ads placed by Prosper Thomson. The one from 1st March 1947 mentions “Clinic Distributors”, and dates to a specific period when he was looking to buy a sedan to start an out-of-town taxi business:-

MORRIS 10 h.p. saloon. Series M. 1940. same cars now selling as 1947 models for £635. This car has just been rebored, crankshaft ground, all bearings renewed, brakes relined. king pins replaced, and is definitely equal to new car and represents rare opportunity to acquire most popular sedan. Doing approx. 40 m.p. gal of petrol. We require large sedan or coupe, like Chev., Dodge or similar, suitable country traveller, on exchange basis. NSPR of Morris £298. genuine NSPR deal. See Mr. Thomson. Clinic Distributors. 200 Hindley st, business hours.

Though it has to be said that Thomson also placed a separate ad for this kind of car under his middle name, linked to GPO Box 1009J, e.g. 26th March 1947:-

WANTED urgently, tourer or roadster, by ex-serviceman, commencing business, utility will do, cash £75 to £150. Will inspect. McTaggart, Box 1009J. G.P.O.

Anyway, if we trace 200 Hindley Street forward to early 1949, we find other items for sales, e.g. 5th April 1949 and 6th April 1949:-

PAIR of binoculars. 200 Hindley st, City between 9 a.m.-5-3O p.m.

However, what seems to be the most likely explanation for all this is that 200 Hindley Street also appeared in a 3rd January 1948 job ad for Oilene Suprema Pty Ltd (a Melbourne hairdressing supply company that sold machines and supplies for steam perms etc).

LADIES’ Hairdressing Supply House requires Junior shorthand-typiste; also boy for store; 5-day week. Apply 9-10 Monday, 5th. Oilene Supreema, 200 Hindley st.

Hence my guess is that this was the city address of a hairdressing distribution company called Clinic Distributors (i.e. selling to ‘hairdressing clinics’), and that Thomson had some connection with the people working there.

Might it be that George Thomson and/or Jessica (soon-to-be) Thomson worked for Clinic Distributors at 200 Hindley Street around this time, and so used the company’s address for their small ads? It might be possible to check this: something to think about, anyway.

Other Adverts

Here’s another small-ad sale from 13th May 1948, this time with an evening telephone number L8409:-

ENGLISH cloth dress suit, as new. fit 36 in. chest. Inspect 200 Hindley St. 10-5. evening ring L8409.

Another small ad from 17th June 1950 uses the same phone number:-

AUSTIN Panel van, 1940, good order, £275. or near offer. Inspect week end, 4 Marlborough street, Henley Beach. L8409.

…and with the same address…

A.J.S. 1935 2 1/4 h.p, good condition. £35. Specialty Motor Cycle Repairs. 4 Marlborough St.. St. Peters, F5640

…and with the same address and number on 24th January 1948, but in the name of ‘Spicer’…

SPORTS racer, 2-seat Bugatti-Nash for sale; NSPR £270; accept £200. Ring. F5640. Spicer. 4 Marlborough st, St. Peters. Inspect this morn.

I’m don’t know whether or not this strand is connected to the Thomsons (I suspect it isn’t), but I thought I’d mention it anyway, having followed the trail so far. Perhaps a Cipher Mysteries reader will know the answer, they usually do. :-)

The Broken Hill Connection

Interestingly, thanks to the diligent work of researcher Barry Traish going through Trove small ads, we can place George Thomson and his sedan taxi in Broken Hill in the second half of September 1948, vis-à-vis this ad in The Advertiser Wednesday 15th September 1948:-

NEW sedan leaving for Broken Hill Sunday, 3 seats, n/c. Phone X3239

Thomson then seems to have sold (or at least tried to sell) his sedan when he got back from Broken Hill (25th September 1948):-

VAUXHALL 12-h.p. sedan, new, 1948 model, mileage, 1,200. equipped radio and seat covers, exch. for sedan suitable for taxi, 1940 or later, G.M. or Chrysler product preferred. This is a genuine deal, based on new price both ways. No dealers, all genuine replies considered. Write, call or phone Thomson. 90a Moseley st., Glenelg. Phone X3239.

However, Thomson was not licensed to work as a taxi within the town, because he was also fined around this time for having done so (back in August 1948):-

Civil Sittings
Drivers Charged.—Carrying passengers for hire in the city on August 26. while not being licensed by the City Council, cost Prosper McTaggart Thomson, of Moseley street. Glenelg. £2, with £1 19/ costs.
Mr. S. J. Jacobs for defendant.

…all of which surely explains why his ads specify “country trips, day tours, weddings &c”.

Prosper’s Rifle Advert

I’ll just paste this here for completeness: The Advertiser Saturday 18th June 1949

RIFLE, automatic Winchester, model 63 or similar, for cash. Thomson 90A Moseley st., Glenelg. X3239

Enough said for now! :-)

EZ Risdon research update…

Time for an update on various Tasmanian Somerton Man research leads, though I have to say that none of what I’ve found supports the Risdon hypothesis floated by both Byron Deveson and me (i.e. that the high level of lead in the Somerton Man’s hair probably arose from his inhaling fine lead powder as part of an industrial process, and that this could well have been at the Electrolytic Zinc Company’s Risdon plant).

Regardless, here’s what I uncovered: perhaps it will help make some other things clear.

(1) I asked the Tasmanian Information and Research Service (who I’m delighted to report were diligent, extremely helpful and informative) about various records in their holdings.

One key record was the EZ staff records in NS3753/1/93, the first item I would want to look at. However, TIRS replied that: “Unfortunately, despite a lengthy search by archive staff at our off-site repository, this file is missing“. So it seems we’re out of luck here. :-(

(2) I also asked about AA59/1/256. TIRS noted that this file contains records dating from 1947 to 1950, and contains records relating to seven British migrants: John Bradley, Alan Clay, Frederick North, J L Targett, Henry Alfred Thompson, Kenneth Thompson, and William Handel Williams. However, there did not seem to be any records there relating to the group of Displaced Persons I was most interested in.

(3) In addition, I asked about NS569/1/602: but this seems to contain carbon copies of ship journeys carrying processed zinc to customers, i.e. sales-shipping documents. As such, it contained no mention of the Incharran (and I’d guess not the Era either) for the general period we’re interested in.

(4) I was also interested in NS569/1/796, because this was described as containing correspondence between EZ Co and the Royal Hobart Hospital. It turns out to contain carbon copies of letters from EZ Co’s General Superintendant to the Secretary at the RHH. The abundantly helpful TIRS people noted:

There are three carbons for the second half of 1948:

1. 3/8/48 – letter requesting a medical report for accident to Mr B E Davidson admitted to the hospital on 22/7/48 “suffering from burns to the face and eyes as a result of an accident whilst at work”.

2. 30/11/48 – donation of 5 pounds to the hospital

3. 6/11/48 – Insurance accident claim no. 4586 H L Paul – injury to neck on 23/7/48 returned to work 2/11/48 – Mr Paul raised the possibility of permanent injury – since he was treated by Dr Parker in hospital – request further examination by this doctor and a request for an appointment.

(5) Separately, I bought a copy of “From Amber Coast to Apple Isle: Fifty Years of Baltic Immigrants in Tasmania 1948-1998″ by Ramunas Tarvydas. It’s a fascinating and evocative little read, telling the story of Baltic immigration in Tasmania, built from a combination of archival research and first-hand testimony.

From this, I now know that the set of “Displaced Persons” I was interested in all reached Australia on the SS Wooster Victory on 6/9/1948, and then arrived at Beauty Point in Tasmania on the SS Taroona on 15/10/1948 as per my last Risdon round-up post.

I liked Tarvydas’ book, not only for its useful appendices but also for its copious photographs. It paints a picture of how life was for these Balts: though initially there was clearly a lot of antagonism towards them, it seems that once they had had a fight and a beer with the blokes, they were largely accepted. Social integration, Aussie-style. ;-)

Some selected quotes re Balts working at EZ Risdon:

The first job for the men from the Wooster Victory was to dig a trench for some underground cables. They used jackhammers for the first time in their lives, hard work indeed for those who had been students. For this the men were paid eleven pounds and one shilling per fortnight, of which seven pounds thirteen shillings was deducted for board. (p.39)

After their normal shift at the factory, [the Balts] would be sent down to the labouring gang on the wharf to shovel concentrates or to carry zinc ingots. They found this work very hard, and the following day they would ask for light jobs because their backs hurt or their hands blistered. The clerk would say, “Well, there’s only one bloody light job here, and I’ve got it. If you can’t work, go back to where you came from.” (p.40)

Most of the original 18 Lithuanians left the plant on the expiry of their [typically two-year] contracts: only one of these Juozas (Joe) Paskevicius, stayed till retirement, 37 years later. (p.42)

There were 18 Lithuanians and 3 Ukrainians. Tarvydas is only concerned with the 18 Lithuanians (of course) and was aware that he was working from an incomplete set of information: so here are the sixteen Balts he lists, along with their age (and page reference):-

Benys (Ben) Berzanskas – 27 – p.160
Jonas (John) Deckys – 39 – p.162
Kazimieras Degutis – 28 – p.162
Valteris Fromas – 38 – p.163
Pilypis Kairys – 38 – p.167
Vincas Milinkevicius – 28 – p.173
Juozas (Joe) Paskevicius – 25 – p.175
Juozas Petraitis – 36 – p.176
Jonas Pincius – 35 – p.176
Pranas Rupslaukis – 18 – p.179
Petras Slegaris – 43 – p.181
Jonas Slyteris – 45 – p.182
Alfonsas Stankius – 22 – p.182
Juozas Stasevicius – 31 – p.182
Stasys Valaitas – 19 – p.184
Jurgis Vasiliauskas – 37 – p.185

(There’s a photograph of fifteen of them on page 96, but as it’s a bit small I’ll ask the author if I can get a better quality scan before posting it).

Note that the two over-40s in the list – Slegaris and Slyteris – were both alive after 1948, so can be immediately ruled out as Somerton Man candidates. This leaves the two as-yet-unlisted Lithuanians and the three unknown Ukrainians: pretty slight odds, sure, but you never know. :-)

(6) Tarvydas also mentioned a book by someone I didn’t previously know about: Australian author and historian Alison Alexander.

Hence before I delve any further into the history of EZ Co at Risdon, I really ought to get hold of her two books on the subject: “A Heritage of Welfare and Caring: The EZ Community Council, 1918–1991″, Risdon: Pasminco – Metals EZ, 1991; and “The Zinc Works: Producing Zinc at Risdon, 1916–1991″, Risdon: Pasminco – Metals EZ, 1992.

At last, the Somerton Man rifle socks scenario…

In a comment here yesterday, the ever-insightful Byron Deveson raised once again the possibility that the half-a-rifle-in-the-suitcase-with-socks case might be connected with the Somerton-Man-with-no-socks-in-his-suitcase case. Put like that, you have to admit that there is a certain harmonious balance to the suggestion. :-)

Though the Somerton Man case we already know (often in painstaking detail), the other case hasn’t yet really been explored in great depth: as for me, until yesterday I thought it would prove to be no more than a crime of opportunity. But I have now built up a very detailed scenario of what really happened there and why – and to my surprise, it (if true) would seem to explain precisely why the Somerton Man was in Glenelg.

The Evidence

The Advertiser Monday 29th November 1948 Page 6

Mystery Somerton Find
The discovery near the water’s edge at Somerton yesterday of a man’s three-piece suit, sports trousers, a shoe, several pairs of socks and an overcoat is being investigated by police. With the clothing was a rifle stock without a barrel. The articles appeared to have been in the water for some time.

Barrier Miner (Broken Hill) 29th November 1948 page 1

Hectic Week End For B. Hill Boy.
Adelaide. – During a hectic week-end a 17-year-old Broken Hill boy is alleged to have stolen a motor cycle from Broken Hill on Friday night and ridden it to Adelaide, abandoned the cycle in the sandhills at Glenelg, dumped a suitcase containing clothing and a rifle at Somerton beach, and illegally used a motor car at Port Noarlunga.
The lad told the police that he had dumped the clothes, which were found at Somerton yesterday.
Police found the clothes and a rifle with the barrel missing, but the youth said he had left them in the suitcase. He said he walked to Port Noarlunga, where he was later arrested for allegedly having illegal use of a motor car. He appeared in the Juvenile Court today and was remanded until tomorrow week.

The Advertiser 30th November 1948 page 6

ADELAIDE JUVENILE BEFORE MR B. J. COOMBE. SM. Charge Against Youth.— Stated by the prosecution to have run away from his home in NSW, a youth of 17 was charged yesterday with having, at Port Noarlunga on Sunday, unlawfully used a motor car belonging to Maxwell John McCormack, second-hand dealer, of Stanley street North Adelaide. Prosecuting, APP Northwood said that, shortly after the disappearance of the car had been reported to the police, the youth was stopped while he was driving it along the South road. When questioned by traffic constables he admitted the offence. Defendant was remanded in custody until December 7.

Yesterday, I found out from Trove exactly whose motorbike it was: a Mr W. H. Coffey of 637 Lane Lane. Coffey initially reported that his motorbike had been stolen during the evening of Friday 26th November 1948 at some time before 12.30am, when his shift at the Central Power Station finished. The bike was later seen by police passing through Mannahill (89 miles SW of Broken Hill), halfway down the Barrier Highway and heading in the direction of Adelaide.

The Timeline

So: the unnamed youth…
* stole a motorbike from outside the Central Power Station in Broken Hill
* used it to carry a suitcase (containing a rifle and men’s clothes) hundreds of miles to south of Adelaide
* left the suitcase on Somerton Beach
* dumped the bike in the sand dunes at Glenelg
* walked 12 or so miles to Port Noarlunga
* stole a car and headed North back past Glenelg towards Western Adelaide
* was captured by police on South Road

On reflection, I’m now completely happy to rule out the notion that this whole thing was some kind of opportunistic joy-ride. But if not that, what actually happened to connect all these scattered pieces of evidence?

The Rifle Sock Scenario

Right now, I can only see a single scenario that joins all these dots… and it goes like this.

(1) Someone near Somerton Beach wants to buy a rifle, and someone in Broken Hill wants to sell a stolen rifle. This is what drives this entire scenario: everything else clicks through as a sort of logical consequence of this shady buyer-seller attempted transaction… though, as we shall see, with an unfortunate twist.

(2) The seller’s first challenge is how to get the stolen rifle from Broken Hill to Somerton Beach without carrying it himself. He finds a do-anything 17-year-old kid who’s willing to steal a motorbike and be the courier.

(3) The seller’s second challenge is how to fit (and hide) the rifle inside a suitcase. He separates the rifle barrel from the rifle stock, and uses socks to cover up the four exposed ends, to stop the two bumping noisily around in the suitcase. He then wraps them up inside a suit and an overcoat: anyone opening that suitcase would see, well, a suit inside a case. Which is what suitcases are for.

(4) The seller’s third challenge is how to make sure the suitcase’s contents wouldn’t lead straight back to him if it fell into the wrong hands. He removes all the labels from the clothes: a mechanism already eerily familiar to almost everyone who has read about the Somerton Man case.

(5) The seller’s fourth challenge is how to get the rifle from the courier to the buyer without having the courier knowing the buyer’s name or address. His answer is to tell the courier to drop the suitcase in a certain place on Somerton Beach at a certain time, presumably near to where the buyer lives or works.

(6) The plan, then, is for the buyer to collect the suitcase with the rifle in from the beach, whereupon everything is where it needs to be (apart from payment… but more on that later).

Yet even though all six steps appear to have happened exactly as they were supposed to, the suitcase should not have ended up dumped in the sea at Somerton Beach with half a rifle in: so something clearly went very wrong indeed. But what?

How Did Such a Perfect Plan Go Wrong?

Again, I can only think of a single scenario that fits and yet explains everything we see.

(7) Before leaving the beach, the buyer decides to check the contents, and discovers that the seller omitted to describe something about the rifle stock that made it completely unusable.

For example: it was a left-handed rifle stock. Or if not that, then some other utterly fundamental aspect of the rifle stock that was sufficient to destroy the viability of the whole transaction.

Whatever the precise reason, the buyer is now so mortally offended by the rifle stock that he puts it back inside the suitcase, pockets the rifle barrel, and – still in a rage – throws the suitcase and its contents into the sea, before marching off. The rifle is unusable, the deal is off: and from now on, all outcomes are possible.

How Does This Fit With The Somerton Man?

If the seller just happened to be the Somerton Man and the buyer just happened to be Prosper McTaggart Thomson (AKA George Thomson), then what happened next surely began with the remainder of the plan that they had previously agreed.

(8) The seller travels down to Adelaide on the train, and makes his way to Somerton to collect his suitcase, clothes, and payment for the rifle. With him he has a wartime knock-off copy of the Rubaiyat: written on its soft back-cover is Jessie’s Somerton telephone number X3239 (the one that Prosper used in his advertisements).

(9) When the seller arrives, he finds Thomson won’t pay him for the rifle. He launches himself angrily at George, but the younger man is fitter and faster: all the older man manages to do is scratch his hand. He asks for his suitcase: Prosper tells him he left it on the beach – neither realises that it has been found and mentioned in the Advertiser.

(10) Somehow the seller dies…

It seems both to Byron Deveson and to me that the Somerton Man had seen his levels of lead drop down in previous weeks, suggesting that he had previously had a high level of exposure to lead (probably occupational rather than just residential, and probably from lead in its powder form rather than in ingot form), but in the previous few weeks had changed his working environment. His spleen was enlarged, implying that he was fundamentally unwell: if he was sitting on the beach unwell, without money, feeling double-crossed, he could simply have died of stress.

Though pretty much any other outcome is possible, too. :-(

The Punchline

Even when I first dreamed up the whole rifle sock scenario, I found it hard to believe: it seemed such a gossamer web of double-dealing and interstate shadiness. What, really, are the odds that the Somerton Man was selling a left-handed rifle to Prosper Thomson?

Might the Rubaiyat code simply contain directions (somehow) to help the Somerton Man get to Somerton from Adelaide?

Anyway, I’ll let Byron Deveson have the last word here, for he uncovered a piece of evidence from 1949 that perhaps ices the whole fishy cake:-

Prosper advertised for a particular type of rifle in June 1949. To me, advertising for a particular model smells fishy and suggests that Prosper was setting up an alibi in case he was ever found with the rifle that had been dumped on Somerton beach.

The Advertiser 18 June 1949 Page 17

RIFLE, automatic Winchester, model 63 or similar, for cash. Thomson 90A Moseley st., Glenelg. X3239.

What Next?

I’ve gone through all the Law Courts reports in the Advertiser for December 1948, and there seems to have been no follow-up report. But perhaps it would be worth looking at the Court files for 1948, to see if anything else is mentioned there, however small. Specificially, “GRG3/10 Court files – Adelaide Local Court” which covers from 1948 to 1970, and is held by the State Records of South Australia:-

“This series comrpises three seperate sequences of files maintained by the Adelaide Local Court from 1948 to 1970.
– Court files, annual single number, 1948 – 1970
– Australian Register of Judgement files, annual single number with ‘ARJ’ prefix, 1949 – 1968
– Register of Transferred Judgement files, annual single number with ‘RTJ’ prefix, 1948 – 1968
423 metres.”

Any ideas as to how we can identify this 17-year-old lad from Broken Hill? He may still be alive – if this scenario is right, he probably met the Somerton Man. What might he say?

The SS Era and Risdon…

While I previously focused on the Incharran (because it was active a fortnight before the Somerton Man’s death), it was Hong Kong-owned and seems to have had an almost entirely Chinese crew: and given that few would argue that the Somerton Man seemed even remotely Asian (a “Britisher” was one description used), it does seem a little unlikely that our mystery man will turn out to have been working on the Incharran.

Yet the Electrolytic Zinc Company of Australasia had a second boat plying the same zigzaggy zinc-and-lead trade route, the SS Era. I hadn’t properly considered the SS Era before because the timing seemed slightly wrong: but given that Byron Deveson now suspects that the Somerton Man’s exposure to lead could well have happened as far back as four or even five weeks before his death, the SS Era swings back into our frame and so seems well worth a close look.

The SS Era

An earlier ship called the Era was torpedoed in the Mediterranean in 1918: but we’re interested in the SS Era built in 1921 on Clydeside, and then bought in Glasgow by Australian Steamships Pty Ltd (Howard Smith Ltd), Melbourne.

I only managed to dig up a single photograph of the correct Era on this page on Howard Smith’s ships:


Whereas the Incharran was a beefy former Empire ship, I suspect that by 1948 the Era was perhaps a little long in the teeth for an interstate freighter: in 1955, she was sold “to an Eastern buyer” and then scrapped in Hong Kong.

Log Books

The ever-helpful Log of Logs volume 1 lists where many of the Era’s log books ought to be found:

1926 – 1954

13 Official logs, 1926, 1930, 1937, 1939, 1944 * AA, SA, D13;
+ 29 Official logs, 1929-41, 1945-54 * AA, Syd, SP2, SP290, & SP989;
+ Official log, 18.12.1945 – 19.6.1946 * Australian Archives, Melb, MP 49/7;
+ 6 Off.logs, 1939-40, 1942, 1949, 1951-4. ex Newcastle * AA, Syd, SP458, 528.

However, when I went a-looking for these today, the NAA’s online catalogue only seems to contain the following SS Era log books from the 1940s:

448208: SP290/2 1940/ERA/1: ERA official log book 24 April 1940 – 28 May 1940 [Box 5]
448210: SP290/2 1940/ERA/2: ERA official log book 22 May 1940 – 19 November 1940 [Box 5]
448211: SP290/2 1941/ERA/1: ERA official log book 11 June 1941 – 20 November 1941 [Box 17]
448206: SP290/2 1941/ERA/2: ERA official log book 21 November 1941 – 17 June 1942 [Box 17]
745465: C12 NN: Era Official Log Book 18/6/1942 – 21/12/1942 [Box 32]
448208: SP290/2 1945/ERA/1: ERA official log book 29 June 1945 – 17 December 1945 [Box 62]
448207: SP290/2 1946/ERA/1: SS ERA official log book 20 June 1946 – 27 November 1946 [Box 75]

(SP2/1 covers 1930 to 1939 and also includes some of Era’s wireless logs, while MP102/1 covers 1950.)

Unfortunately, even though NAA’s SP989/1 (held in Sydney) does index numerous logbooks (AEON, FIONA, MANUNDA, etc), the SS Era wasn’t listed there. My guess is that nobody has yet asked to have a look at these, and so they haven’t yet been added to the NAA’s Big Fat Online Index Of Everything. I’ve put in a request to have these indexed, so that if they do happen to cover (say) Oct 1948 to Dec 1948, we can go in and have a look. :-)

However, I did find other things in the NAA that were related to the SS Era:-

3006282: SP958/1, NN: Agreement and Account of Crew, ERA, 27 April 1948 to 10 November 1948 [25 pages; box 76]
3006283: SP958/1, NN: Agreement and Account of Crew, ERA, 11 November 1948 to 8 May 1949 [27 pages; box 76]
7937709: SP461/1, ERA: S S Era – inspection of crew accommodation [Box 1]

In the (hopefully temporary) absence of logbooks I’ve ordered up electronic copies of 3006282 and 3006283 from the NAA, so we shall see what they contain within 30 days, all being well…

New Year 2015

My best wishes to all Cipher Mysteries subscribers, commenters and visitors for a wonderful and genuinely revealing 2015. :-)

I had intended to use this post as an opportunity to go through some of the funky historical cipher-related things I’ve been planning for the year ahead, but I’ve had a last minute change of heart. Instead, all I’m going to say for now is that my plan is for this year to be full of splendid surprises, and I hope that you enjoy them all! Cheers!

Voynich block #3 – the ‘magic circles’

If you look at the reverse side of the Voynich Manuscript’s famous nine-rosette foldout sheet, you’ll find two curious (and as yet wholly unexplained) circular diagrams sitting beside one another:


Let’s look a little closer (f85r2 is on the left and f86v4 is on the right):



The characters look like this (N, E, S, W):-


For f85r2 (the ‘sun’ circle on the left), the interlinear description notes that:

The sex of the figures is indeterminate, as neither breasts nor beards are visible. The South figure is leaning on a staff, and looks like an old man or woman; the other three could be women or young men, possibly children.

The figures are partially hidden behind by the inner frame: the South figure is hidden from the knees down by the inner frame, and the other three are hidden from the waist down. All four figures wear a colored, buttonless shirt, with long and narrow sleeves, which in the South figure is seen to be a tunic or dress, ending just above the knee. Ring collars are visible in the North and West figures. All three figures have light hair, bushy over the ears and cropped just below them. The East figure wears a dark skullcap.

The right hands of West, North, and East are hidden by the inner frame. With the left hand, North seems to be pointing to the last word of the text above (which sits on a line by itself); East holds an unidentified dark object, consisting of two stacked bulbs of unequal size, topped by a short spike (it could be a root); and West seems to be holding a flower, shaped like a lily but dark colored. South holds a staff with the left hand, and a chain with three huge rings on his right.


It has been conjectured that the four figures represent the Four Ages of Man. If the diagram is to be read clockwise, like the text, then West (who lies over the “start marker”, by the way) would be Infancy. However, East (with the skullcap) looks younger than the other three.

D’Imperio suggested that this diagram might tie in with Galenic medicine: while a Voynich mailing list contributor by the name of Eric suggested back in 2004 that the four characters on f85r2 were all male. (Here’s his page preserved on the Wayback Machine).

[North] Gazing towards his left hand, on which (or in?) is a small square object with a blue dot in the center – most probably a ring. The right hand bends out of view. Hands positioning ambiguous. Wears a small headband or crown – small dots inside could be jewels. Wearing a blue shirt with neck and wrist bands. Hair cut above the ears. Most probably male.

[East] Holding a round object in the right hand topped with a cylinder and a spike and two circles to either side – possibly an oil lamp (the spike being a flame). Left hand bends out of view. Hands positioning ambiguous. Has a band of blue across the forehead, though it isn’t a cap since his hair flows freely out the top. Wearing a blue shirt with neck and wrist bands. Hair cut around the ears. Most probably male.

[South] Holding and leaning on a cane in the right hand. Left hand holds a large circled chain of three loops. Hands seem front-to-back. High forehead, very short hair (above ears). Wearing a green full-length dress with blue sleeves and trim, with wrist bands and a plunged neckline. Mouth is painted blue. Could be a man or woman.

[West] Holding a lily shaped object in the right hand. Left hand bends out of view. Hands positioning seems correct. Wearing a blue shirt with neck and wrist bands. Hair cut below the ears. Most probably male.

Back in 2004, I conjectured that these four characters might instead represent four powerful European nations:

N = Holy Roman Emperor (ring)
E = Venice (glassware)
S = Rome/Sicily (a blind guess on my part, but feel free to play cherchez-le-pain) :-)
W = France (fleur-de-lys)

More recently, Marco Ponzi suggested that these four characters might represent the four seasons with Winter (East) holding a metallic hand-warmer, an idea which then got elaborated into a page on Stevie Bax’s site. Needless to say, I’m not convinced by this, not even slightly.

But if you want a properly interesting medieval parallel, I’d perhaps suggest the Wheel of Fortune, the Rota Fortunae: “Fortune, good night, smile once more; turn thy wheel!”, indeed. Schwikipedia describes it thus:

“Characteristically, it has four shelves, or stages of life, with four human figures, usually labeled on the left regnabo (I shall reign), on the top regno (I reign) and is usually crowned, descending on the right regnavi (I have reigned) and the lowly figure on the bottom is marked sum sine regno (I am without a kingdom). Dante employed the Wheel in the Inferno and a “Wheel of Fortune” trump-card appeared in the Tarot deck (circa 1440, Italy).”

Needless to say, I don’t buy into this either: in fact, all these theories seem to be bouncing off the surface, and not really getting any kind of grip on this diagram.


At first sight, this seems quite different to the first diagram, apart from a load of odd filigree-style detailing… but closer examination reveals some features hidden in plain sight:-


The characters look like this (N, E, S, W):-


Eric concludes that these four moon-side characters are probably all female, and describes them thus:-

[North] Holding a round object in right hand (this might be false and should be an open hand, with the object actually the arching design – though by looking at the detail of the area, it seems most likely it is an object; however, it is not painted in the light yellow color the other objects are) and what looks like a small twiggy plant in a soil pouch in the left. Faces away from the viewer. Seems to have a hair band or possibly a blindfold. Hands positioning ambiguous. Wearing a flowing shirt with neck and wrist bands. Hair falls just below the ears. Could be a man or a woman.

[East] Holding a round object in the left hand and a seemingly flat, square object in the right (this might also be false – the square object is rounded in a fashion and could be the arching design; the object is colored yellow like the other objects though, so I have included it as an object). Hands seem back-to-front. Wearing a flowing shirt with neck and wrist bands. Hair falls just below the ears. Could be a man or a woman.

[South] Holding a round object in the left hand and a bowl in the right. Hands seem back-to-front. Wearing a flowing shirt with neck and wrist bands. Hair falls just below the ears. Breast outline visible.

[West] Holding twigs (straw, wheat?) in the left hand and an dumbell shaped object with a round addition on top (a vase possibly?) in the right. Hands seem back-to-front. Wearing a flowing shirt with neck and wrist bands. Hair falls just below the ears. Both breast outlines are visible.

As to what these all are, there are surprisingly few theories: Erni Lillie once wrote that this depicted Dante’s Mystic White Rose (full theory here).

For myself: having read a lot about magic circles over the years, I have a strong suspicion that the West figure is holding hyssop, mentioned in the Bible as a herb used for ceremonial cleansing. And the way that we are looking at the back of the North character’s head reminds me of a paricular medieval necromantic demon whose name eludes me but whose face was supposed never to be depicted. (I mentioned directional spirits here and here in relation to f57v before).

But beyond that, people have largely drawn a blank here too.

An unexpected parallel

If we compare the two sets of four figures with the four figures on f57v’s circular diagram, some further unexpected similarities emerge:


It seems to me that the four characters on f86v4 (middle row) are in some way related to the four characters on f57v (bottom row). What that actually means I really don’t know… but it’s an interesting point, eh?

And the block paradigm says…

If you strip away the decorative ‘papellony’-style fish-scale detailing from f86v4, you end up with two circular diagrams side by side, one with a sun at the centre, the other with a moon at the centre. I honestly find it hard to believe that something so distinctive arrived here ex nihilo: this pair must surely have come from a prior document somewhere.

If that original pair of diagrams still exists and we can find it, then we stand a chance of reverse-engineering the text beside the Voynich Manuscript’s versions of these diagrams. This is a block we should be actively looking for!

Voynich block #2: the recipe section…?

People have long proposed that the Voynich Manuscript’s Quire 20 (‘Q20′) might be a collection of recipes of some sort. This also suggests that there may well have been an original plaintext block of recipes from which Q20 was derived (though whether as a cipher, shorthand, or curious language it matters not at this stage): but do we stand any chance of identifying the original document?

Actually, we do know quite a lot about Q20: and having thought about these many observations for several years, the inferences I remain most convinced by are:-

(1) that the tails on the paragraph stars are probably hiding ‘y’, short for ‘ytem’ or ‘ybidem';

(2) that the tail-less paragraph stars on f103r were added in after the event – that is, that f103r was originally written unstarred, but that untailed stars were later added in so that this page blended in better with the others (but I don’t know why, or what this means);

(3) that Q20 was originally formed of two distinct gatherings, with f105r the first page of the first gathering (‘Q20a’) and f116v the last page of the last gathering (‘Q20b’), and as a result we cannot really trust the layout of the bifolios as they have been handed down to us;

(4) that the last paragraph of f116r probably contains some kind of attribution or conclusion – e.g. this book was copied by me on the 4th January 1453 in the town of Milan, from the manuscript lent to me by the painter Giovanni from Verona etc etc :-) ;

(5) that even though we currently have between 345 and 347 starred paragraphs and four missing pages (i.e. two missing folios, or rather one missing bifolio), I think – because I’m far from convinced that all the paragraph stars are definitely genuine ‘item’ markers – we have to be very wary about trusting that the number of starred paragraphs we see is an accurate representation of the number of itemized paragraphs in the original.

All the same, my overall suspicion is that if we were to look for candidates for the original source of this recipe block, we should perhaps look for a source compiled prior to 1450 containing between 300 and 400 itemised recipes. As usual, I’d prioritize European sources over others, and I’d prioritize candidates whose writer obviously believed them to be secret; but everyone sees this differently, so make of those particular preferences what you will.

All in all, I currently only have a single serious candidate for that original block, one that I stumbled upon only recently: and because it’s Christmas time, I thought I’d throw it out to you lovely people, see what you think. :-)

It’s MS. 6741 of the National Library of Paris, containing a sizeable (359 numbered items of varying size, plus various rhymes) set of recipes compiled from various sources by Jean le Bègue / Jehan le Bègue [1368-1457], as admirably transcribed by Mary Philadelphia Merrifield (and translated by her two sons) in 1849 in her book Original Treatises, Dating from the XIIth to the XVIIIth Centuries, on the Arts of Painting.

If you’re interested, there’s some modern discussion on Merrifield’s work here: but both her and Jean le Bègue aren’t really discussed anywhere much these days, which I think is a shame because there’s lots of lovely stuff in there.

PS: this post may be the first time someone has proposed a possible link between MS 6741 and the Voynich Manuscript’s Q20, but please correct me if I’m wrong. :-)

The book begins (p.47):


1. Nota quod auree littere scribuntur sic, cum ista aqua ; accipe sulphur vivum, et corticem interiorem mali granati, aluminis, saltis, et de pluvia auri, tantum quantum vis, et aquam gummi liquide, et modicum de croco, et misce, et scribe.

The book finishes (p.320):


Compositus est liber iste a magistro Johanne le Begue, Licentatio in Legibus, Greffario Generalium Magistrorum Monetae Regis Parisiis, anno Domini 1431, aetatis vero suae 63.


This Book is composed by Master Jehan Le Begue, a Licentiate in the Law, Notary-General of the Masters of the King’s Mint, at Paris, Anno Domini 1431, when he was 63 years of age.

Risdon round-up…

This page is just a round-up of all the Risdon-in-1948-related research bits that ought to go onto the blog, but that don’t (yet) merit a page of their own. Maybe the Next Big Thing will be in here, who can tell?

Risdon wharf

Wharf workers who worked at Risdon were employed full-time by the Electrolytic Zinc Company, though were paid different hourly rates if they were working on the wharves or not: a policy which brought it, in July 1948, into conflict with the Waterside Workers Federation, which instead wanted to allow casual waterside workers to be used on the Risdon wharves, and were threatening to get the Seamen’s Union to blacklist throughout the Commonwealth any ships that loaded or unloaded there. (The EZ Co had managed to get Risdon exempted from counting as a part of Hobart port for 28 years.)

This war of words continued for a long time, with the Waterside Workers Federation’s Mr. E. Roach also alleging thatdangerous practices in loading and unloading are carried on at the Electrolytic Zinc Co.’s Risdon wharf and that the company has threatened with dismissal any man who protests“, allegations that the company loudly insisted were “entirely untrue“. (I haven’t found any specific details about Roach’s claims anywhere, but perhaps a different researcher will have more luck than me in this regard.)

The Stevedoring Industry Commission under Judge Kirby had ruled in favour of EZ Co: and the matter eventually went quiet, with claims that the matter was being put to one side pending a state election also being declared false.

Zeehan Closure

Byron Deveson turned up this article from the Advocate (Burnie) 30th June 1948 page 1


Roasting at the Electrolytic Zinc Co’s smelters at Zeehan will be discontinued in a week’s time. The last rail load of concentrates will leave Rosebery tomorrow for the Zeehan plant, and it is expected that roasting of this ore, together with supplies on hand, will take about a week. The entire output of concentrates from Rosebery will in future be despatched to Risdon, where completion of extensions to the roasting and acid plants demand great quantities of concentrates. About 50 per cent of the production-500 tons weekly-has in the past been railed to Zeehan for reduction to calcines which have then gone to Risdon for the production of zinc. The recovery of sulphur, which is lost in the atmosphere at Zeehan, is a feature of the Risdon plant. The acid produced from the sulphur is used mainly in the manufacture of super-phosphate. The Zeehan roasting plant has been in operation for the past 12 years and employs approximately 30 men. For the time being they will be engaged in cleaning up calcine dumps and in the dismantling and removal of portion of the plant. On the completion of this work they can be readily absorbed at Rosebery.

Byron concludes that from the start of July 1948 until December 1948, 500 tons a week of zinc concentrate containing lead would have been sent to Risdon: which would have placed a lot of pressure on Risdon staff to get the flash roaster and acid plant commissioned as quickly as possible.

I also turned up an article from the 21st September 1948 Mercury reporting the Electrolytic Zinc Company’s Community Council AGM, where the general superintendent W. C. Snow said that “the new flash roaster and new acid plant were almost ready to go into operation. Much work had been done overseas in preparation for the ammonium sulphate plant, and he hoped that work would start at Risdon within a few months.” This should help to narrow down the range of dates when these expensive new facilities actually started being used at Risdon.

22 Migrants

Trove has numerous copies of articles about migrants arriving in Tasmania during 1948: many of these were on assisted passage schemes from the UK and Commonwealth that were designed to give Australia’s economy an injection of vitality in the difficult post-war years, and who typically arrived on big ships such as the SS Ormonde. There were also many other ships, such as those that arrived with ex-service personnel (e.g. the SS Strathavan).

One group of migrants, however, sticks out: 40 unmarried men and 9 unmarried women who came across from Australia on the RMS Taroona, arriving on the 15th October 1948. The 16th October 1948 Mercury described them as “Displaced Persons” and noted that “[e]ighteen men would work at timber mills on the North-East Coast, 22 men at the Electrolytic Zinc Co. at Risdon, and the nine women at hospitals in Hobart.”

The 16th October 1948 Launceston Examiner ran a very much fuller story:

TIMBER mill-hands-to-be, these Europeans who arrived at Launceston on the Taroona yesterday worked at a variety of occupations before the war.

One was a judge’s associate in Latvia. Odds are that if you try to pick him, you’ll be wrong. He’s on the extreme right. Others in the group are, from left: A tailor, engine driver. carpenter, locksmith, cook and fitter and turner. Most of the 18 who arrived at Launceston to work in northern timber mills spent about four years in Germany as prisoners. The ex-judge’s associate worked in Germany as a fireman. His wife and nine year-old son are in a transit camp awaiting a ship for Australia. Those for the north were a mixed group, including one Latvian, two Czechs, three Estonians, and 12 Ukranians. Twenty-two more men and nine single women for hospital domestic work went to Hobart by train.


Of course, I strongly doubt that the Somerton Man will turn out to be one of these timber mill hands: but might he be one of the 22 other displaced persons who started work at the Electrolytic Zinc Company at Risdon in mid to late October 1948? It’s entirely possible, and I personally wouldn’t like to be betting against that possibility just yet.

Nicely, it turned out that Cipher Mysteries commenter Helen Ensikat has been looking at this same group completely in parallel: and she found out that the Electrolytic Zinc Company held reasonably detailed files on its migrant workers. If you want to see these for yourself, they are AA59/1/256 (held in Hobart): who knows what these will tell us?

Displaced Persons

All of which leads me swiftly on to the larger issue of displaced persons. If you search the NAA’s catalogue, you’ll find a huge amount of stuff on the policies, pamphlets and propaganda targeted at displaced persons. For example, the nurses who ended up in Tasmania seem to be covered by the file “A434, 1950/3/3363″ (16 Sep 1948 to 1950): while other documents describe the history (e.g. the Skaugum motor vessel, the Protea, and the Orontes, all bringing around 4000 to 5000 migrants per month in mid 1949) and even things like the construction and running of hostels – after all, these migrants had to live somewhere.

There were many ships that seem primarily to have brought displaced persons to Australia: for example, the Protea arrived at Melbourne on 30th September 1948, so our 22 could well have been on that ship (NAA ref: “PROTEA 21/8/1948″, held at Adelaide). Similarly the Wooster Victory (whose splendidly Wodehousean name will doubtless make Diane O’Donovan nearly choke with laughter) arrived at Sydney from Genoa on 6th September 1948 (NAA ref: “WOOSTER VICTORY 6/8/1948″, also held at Adelaide; while its nominal rolls are online here, filled to the funnels with Eastern Europeans). There was also the General Sturgess (mentioned in a file on Communist displaced persons in Australia), and the Kanimbla (arrived 11th October 1948), and doubtless numerous others.

The point of all this is that these two groups of displaced persons and migrants are towering haystacks for our Somerton Man needle to be lost in. So: not really a great place for us to try starting any search from, without some significant secondary hypothesis to work with. :-(

How the Risdon roaster might explain everything…

I’ve been exchanging more emails about Risdon with the ever-insightful Byron Deveson. At my suggestion, he bought a copy of a 10-page pamphlet entitled “A Brief Guide to the Risdon Plant of the Electrolytic Zinc Company of Australasia Ltd, March 1949″ online from an Australian bookseller: this includes maps and layouts of the buildings around the zinc works at Risdon, and also descriptions of the history and the various industrial processes involved.

One particular paragraph on page 3 leapt out at me, because it contained an unexpected fact that may change how we look at the Somerton Man case:-

“The flash-roasting furnace in which the charge is roasted when suspended in air as a dust has been in operation at Risdon for only four months.”

The pamphlet was written in March 1949: so four months before (i.e. around November 1948), an entirely new flash-roasting furnace that took powder as its input was coming online at the plant. At the Electrolytic Zinc Company’s AGM at the end of November 1948, the chairman had noted that: “The cost of the flash roaster and the new acid plant at the Risdon works had so far been about £560,000. That would give some idea of the magnitude of these additions to the Risdon plant.

Byron Deveson’s opinion (and I do hope he won’t mind being quoted on this): “The fluidised bed calciner could pump out lots of fumes while it was being commissioned. The air coming out of the roaster has to be scrubbed very thoroughly, and there would be lots of it and malfunctions during the commissioning phase are quite likely.

Moreover, according to page 7 of the March 1949 pamphlet:

“A contact sulphuric acid plant began operating at Risdon in December 1948 …”

This leads Byron to the further conclusion that “it is quite likely that the roaster gases that were discharged from the cyclones were probably vented into the atmosphere for several months before the acid plant was completed. And the lead dust particles would have not been noticeable but the lead concentration could have been quite high.

The Somerton Man is now looking to me likely to have been the victim of industrial lead poisoning incident at Risdon in the period after the flash roaster was initially put into commission (October / November 1948) but before the acid plant started operation (December 1948). If this is correct, the most productive place to be looking for answers should be in the Eletrolytic Zinc Company’s staff records archives (which still exists and is held in Hobart).

Essentially, if the Somerton Man had been working there in November 1948, he certainly wasn’t being paid during December 1948: that should be sufficient to narrow the search down to two or three people. Pretty good odds! :-)

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