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Frequency Analysis for Fun

A gold binary bug

Frequency Analysis, a technique beloved by Spooks for centuries, and that led to the execution of at least one Queen, also played a part in the development of the game Scrabble, over a hundred million copies of which have been sold worldwide.

Frequency Analysis was invented by Al-Kindi, a 9th Century Muslim, Arabic Scholar, as a way of cracking codes. He originally described it in his "A Manuscript on Deciphering Cryptographic Messages". Frequency analysis just involves taking a large amount of normal text written in the language of interest and counting how often each letter appears. For example in English, the letter E is the most common. With simple kinds of cyphers that is enough information to be able to crack them, just by counting the frequency of the letters in the code you want to crack. Now large numbers of everyday people do frequency analysis just for fun, solving Cross Reference puzzles.

The link between frequency analysis and puzzles goes back earlier. When the British were looking for potential code breakers to staff their secret code breaking establishment at Bletchley Park in World War II, they needed people with the skills of frequency analysis and problem solving skills. They did this by setting up Crossword competitions and offering those who were fastest jobs at Bletchley: possibly the earliest talent competition with career changing prizes!

Earlier still, in the 1930s, Architect Alfred Mosher Butts, hit on the idea of a new game that combined crosswords and anagrams, which were both popular at the time. The result was Scrabble. However, when designing the game he had a problem in that he needed to decide how many of each letter the game should have and also how to assign the scores. He turned to frequency analysis of the front page of the New York Times to give the answers. He broke the pattern of his frequency analysis though, including fewer letter Ss (the second most common word in English) than there should be so the game wasn't made too easy because of plurals.

A glowing bar chart

Sherlock Holmes, of course, was a master of frequency analysis as described in the 1903 story "The Adventure of the Dancing Men". Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn't the first author to use it as a plot device though. Edgar Alan Poe had based a short story called "The Gold Bug" around frequency analysis in 1843. It was Poe who originally popularised frequency analysis with the general public rather than just with Spymasters. Poe had discovered how popular the topic was as a result of having set a challenge in a magazine for people to send in cyphers - that he would then crack, giving the impression at the time that he had near supernatural powers. The way it was done was then described in detail in "The Gold Bug".