A team of specialists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology deciphered a letter that is more than 300 years old. It turned out to be a very complicated process because the paper was folded several times and could not be unfolded without being damaged.
The letter, along with other undelivered correspondence, was kept in the old trunk of a couple of postal administrators, Simon and Marie de Brienne. They handled a significant part of the international mail in the late 17th century.
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The chest, called the Brienne Collection, contains more than 2,600 letters, 600 of which were never opened. In 1926, it was transferred to the postal museum in The Hague (the Netherlands).
In the 17th century, the recipient paid postage and shipping costs.
If the recipient died, was absent, or had no money, the postal administrators could not collect and they used to destroy those dead letters. Unlike them, the Brienne’s kept them, hoping that someone would retrieve them and pay the shipping costs.
The senders of these letters closed them using letterlocking format – the process of folding a sheet of paper with the letter written on it into its own envelope. This technique was practiced to protect the content of the letters since it was not possible to open them without leaving any trace.
Using X-ray microtomography, a team of scientists has opened one of these letters for the first time. It was sent in July 1697 by the Frenchman Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers to request a certified copy of the obituary of a certain Daniel Le Pers. Their findings were published in Nature Communications.
“We developed virtual unfolding to test our theories about letterlocking and shed light on a historically vital but long-underestimated form of physical cryptography,” the study authors write.
While previous research had developed X-ray methods to unfold folded cards only a couple of times, this team set out to design a method that could be universally used on intricately folded letters.
“We’re x-raying history,” said David Mills, team member and director of the X-ray microtomography facility at Queen Mary University in London. The funny thing is that these machines were initially designed for use in dentistry.
“Who would have thought that a scanner designed to look at teeth would take us so far?” Davis wonders.