One of the running storylines in the holiday film A Christmas Story is Ralphie Parker’s checking of the mail each week for his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Pin. Prizes like the decoder pin or ring have been used as promotional items by retailers as earlier as the 1930s. Growing in the 1960s the tennis shoe PF Flyers, in conjunction with the cartoon series Jonny Quest also offered a promotional decoder ring. I remember working hard to get mine.
Growing up everyone in my neighborhood (at least all the boys) were interested in encryption, ciphers, and secret codes. Programs like The Wild, Wild, West, Man From Uncle, Batman, and Secret Agent Man often introduced clues through some kind of code. Archeologists were always decoding hieroglyphics to discover the secrets of the ancient tombs in our favorite Mummy movies. One of my favorite authors, Walter B. Gibson, writing under the pen name Maxwell Grant wrote numerous Shadow Pulps with themes that involved secret writings and codes.
Secret Codes are puzzles, and we love to solve puzzles. One of the most fascinating uses of a secret code can be found in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short story, The Adventure of the Dancing Men. I think I can safely say that it is one of everyone’s favorite Holmes adventures. In fact, Doyle himself ranked it number three of his twelve favorite stories.
In college, I came across a reel to reel copy of an old Captain Midnight radio series. (For more old time radio fun during the holidays check out our blog filled with recommendations.) We loaded that adventure up and listened with much excitement. Just like Orphan Annie in A Christmas Story, the announcer closed with a secret message from the Captain.
As much older and wiser young men we had all grown up understanding the simple Caesar cipher used by most of these decoder rings. For the novice, the cipher uses a substitution method, in which each letter A-Z is replaced by a letter some fixed number of positions down the alphabet. For example, with a left shift of 3, D would be replaced by A, E would become B, and so on. With that knowledge, we worked to solve Captain Midnight’s message. After hours of work, we never broke the code. I guess maybe you have to be an official Captain Midnight Operative with your own Code-O-Graph to get the answers.
Although solving these types of puzzles have always been fun, I’ve never been very good at them. Today, gamers and others many times must solve clues, and decode messages to move forward in a variety of online games. Even the show, The Amazing Race, has tossed out messages that contestants must decode to move forward. We still love these types of puzzles.