Competition Decodes Letter by Dickens

Meaning of 1859 page of symbols and scribbles had been a mystery
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 20, 2022 2:35 PM CST
Tech Team Helps Scholars Crack Dickens' Shorthand
Charles Dickens developed a shorthand system that no one could decipher.   (Getty/FPG)

The works of Charles Dickens are widely read, but a single page had defied scholars for more than a century. The contents of the letter, written in 1859, remained a mystery because it consisted not of letters of any alphabet but of symbols, dots, and scribbles—a shorthand all Dickens' own, developed while he worked as a court reporter. Last March, frustrated experts at the University of Leicester threw their effort open, the New York Times reports, posting a copy of the letter online and offered about $400 to whoever had the most success deciphering it. That did the trick: 70% of the letter now is decoded.

A computer technical support specialist from San Jose was declared the winner from a field of 1,000. "After getting mostly C grades in literature, I never dreamed anything I'd ever do would be of interest to Dickens scholars!" Shane Baggs said. Ken Cox, 20, a cognitive science student at the University of Virginia, came in second. He grew up knowing Dickens because of his mother's interest. The scholars remained involved when the tech people joined the effort, per the Times. "Some stuff that is really obvious to the Dickensians isn’t obvious to the cryptographers and maybe vice versa," said one of the organizers.

The school led workshops on the shorthand that Dickens learned from a manual called Brachygraphy when he was 16. His system evolved into something no one else could understand. Baggs' breakthroughs included realizing that the "@" symbol—which others thought stood for "at," as it does now—was a reference to Dickens’' journal All the Year Round. Experts believe the page is a copy of part of a lost letter Dickens sent to the editor of The Times of London. It turns out that Dickens was appealing the decision to reject an ad for a new literary publication. The directness of his language, for the time, shows Dickens was angry, one expert said. The group plans to work on decoding the rest of the letter and other texts for the next year. (More Charles Dickens stories.)

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