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"On This Date in History" Calendar

1562: Death of Johannes Trithemius

Friday, December 15, 2023

15 December 1562: Death of Johannes Trithemius, author of the oldest book on cryptology, "Polygraphaie." He began writing the book in 1508, but it was not published until 1518. In fact, Trithemius wrote several books and finished them quickly, but they were not published until after his death. This photo is of the Museum's rare book exhibit, which includes a copy of "Polygraphaie." Click to learn about the NCMF's acquisition of a publication by Trithemius from Dr. David Kahn.

The major works of Trithemius include "Steganographia," (which means in Greek, "hidden writing") written circa 1499, "Polygraphiae," a cryptographic work, and "De Septum Secundeis," a history of the World based on astrology.

Trithemius was also a magician. In his trilogy -"Steganographia," books one and two were clearly systems for encoding and were the first books written on cryptography. The third book in the trilogy was more buried in the guise of occult astrology. Many took the writing literally and thought the numbers contained secrets to conjuring spirits. Scholars, however, went further and discovered the writing contained a code and began working to decipher it. The messages encrypted in Trithemius's tables turned out to be somewhat ordinary sentences.


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