Students Crack Shorthand of Rhode Island's Founder

Brown University math major figures out notes of Roger Williams
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 30, 2012 5:24 PM CST
Students Crack Shorthand of Rhode Island's Founder
Lucas Mason-Brown, a senior mathematics major at Brown University who helped crack the code.   (Stephan Savoia)

The obscure book's margins are virtually filled with clusters of curious foreign characters—a mysterious shorthand used by 17th-century religious dissident Roger Williams. For centuries the scribbles went undeciphered. But a team of Brown University students has finally cracked the code. Historians call the now-readable writings the most significant addition to Williams scholarship in a generation or more. Williams is Rhode Island's founder and best known as the first figure to argue for the principle of the separation of church and state that would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

His coded writings are in the form of notes in the margins of a book at the university's John Carter Brown Library. This year, senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown figured out a rough key: Williams' system consisted of 28 symbols that stand for a combination of English letters or sounds, and how they're arranged is key to their meaning. He and other students determined there were three separate sections of notes, including Williams' original thoughts on one of the major theological issues of the day: infant baptism. Williams also weighed in on the conversion of Native Americans, implying it was being achieved through treachery and coercion. Click for AP's full story. (More Brown University stories.)

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