Language Professor Deciphers Letters by Emperor Ferdinand III

by Public Relations | Sep 25, 2017

Sept. 25, 2017

Dr. Thomas ErnstThe German cryptologer Klaus Schmeh has dedicated a chapter in the second edition of his book, Versteckte Botschaften (Hidden Messages), to the decipherment by Dr. Thomas Ernst, assistant professor of modern and classical languages in the Saint Vincent College School of Humanities and Fine Arts, of Trithemius' Steganographia. Schmeh described the story of Ernst's discovery as one of the highlights of his book.

Schmeh mentions that Ernst proofread and rewrote that particular chapter of the book which was published in August 2017. It has not yet been translated.

“My book chapter is one of the first popular scientific treatises of this discovery,” Schmeh commented. “I invested a lot of time in proofreading it. I even re-wrote some of the passages. For another summary of this great story check the website of Jürgen Hermes which was one of my sources.”

In 1993, Ernst was the first to successfully decipher the third book of Johannes Trithemius, Steganographia (published in 1500), which had remained a much-discussed riddle for nearly 500 years.

Ernst also translated Wolfgang Ernst Heidel's enciphered comment on Trithemius (published in 1676). Ernst's findings were published in the Dutch journal, Daphnis, in 1996. An English version appeared in 1998 in the journal Cryptologia.

In 2001, Ernst debunked a forged manuscript of the Steganographia in his article, Anatomie einer Fälschung (Anatomy of a Forgery).

Ernst has been interviewed numerous times about his cryptological activities by The New York Times, the PIttsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review as well as NPR. His work on Trithemius has become an indispensable reference work in the field of cryptology.

In September 2017, Ernst was able to successfully crack the Zifra Picolominea (1640), after a group of information scientists had failed to do so. This cipher was employed during the Thirty Years' War between the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand III, his brother Archduke Leopold and the leading general of the Habsburg forces, Ottavio Piccolomini.

The solution of this cipher will allow an understanding of numerous letters exchanged between three main players during the Thirty Years' War. Professor Leopold Auer from the University of Vienna has invited Ernst to publish his findings in the Austrian journal Mitteilungen des Österreichischen Staatsarchives.

Ernst, a member of the Saint Vincent College faculty since 2000, earned a bachelor of arts degree from Clarion University, a master of arts degrees in French and German and a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh.

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Photo: Dr. Thomas Ernst

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