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Previous competitions

The Cipher Challenge has been running since 2001, starting with a local competition for Hampshire schools as part of the University of Southampton Silver Jubilee celebrations. Designed and run by staff in the (then) Faculty of Mathematics the competition had a simple website with five unrelated cipher texts to break, and prizes from the Faculty, IBM and Waterstones. Marking was a bit of a chore (we did it by hand back then) but the enthusiasm of the competitors was so infectious that we decided to roll it out nationally the following year. Harry had the idea of writing it as a story featuring Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, and hours of hand coding of a web site and trawling through history books to get the story right got us hooked and we never looked back. In 2002 we were kindly supported by a grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as part of their outreach activities, and we were able to get help in setting up the system that underpinned the Challenge for the next twelve years. At this point we were also joined by Bletchley Park, the London Mathematical Society, the Guardian Online and of course IBM who have been sponsors ever since, for which we will be eternally grateful.

In 2004 we were joined by Trinity College Cambridge, and GCHQ, and over the years we have received support and encouragement from  BCS, the chartered institute for computer IT, and Netcraft a cyber security company. Our most recent sponsor is our web development and hosting agency 10 Degrees, and we would like to express our gratitude to them all for making the competition possible.

Fifteen stories so far have ranged from a tale of fraud and misadventure in the battles with Napoleon, to the mysterious death of a world famous mathematician and the resulting adventures of his graduate student, Trinity. You can find a (very) brief synopsis of each of them below, and eventually we hope to bring those challenges back to life on this new site. In the meantime you might notice that some of the characters have returned for more than one story, and there is a tangled web of the connections between them. Harry himself often appears, and given the chronology that suggests that he might be some form of time traveller, but I just think he ages well.

If you have been with the Challenge for a while you will know that we made a lot of changes to the website last year. We are grateful again to GCHQ, who sponsored the redesign and refactoring as part of our 15th anniversary celebrations. The new site provides a solid platform for the Challenge to grow over the next few years, and we hope that you will stay with us and encourage others to join the family that the National Cipher Challenge has become.

The very first National Cipher Challenge. A story about Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and their friend the inventor Charles Wheatstone, battling foreign agents for control of The Encryption Engine.
Introducing Agatha Highfield, Edwardian adventuress and archaeologist, as she searches for The Babylon Stone.
Join Harry in his race to foil the Nazi atom bomb project in Die Alchemisten.
What is the purpose of the mysterious crashed Russian satellite? Can the allies find out by beating the Soviets in the race to recover it from its resting place on The Lomonosov Ridge.
There is more than one way to win a war and perhaps Napoleon has found the key to European domination.
Can Trinity unravel the mystery of her PhD supervisor’s death and escape the attention of his assailants?
This story was heavily influenced by Harry’s holiday reading that summer – Mark Urban’s biography of General George Scovell, The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes.This story deserves to be as well known as the more familiar cracking of the Enigma machine. Mark, the diplomatic editor for Newsnight, very kindly awarded the prizes at Bletchley that year.
Learn how Ada Lovelace first met Charles Babbage.
Harry races to keep a devastating new weapon from the hands of an international criminal gang based in India.
When our heroes find a packet of old papers hidden among the roofs at Bletchley Park they expose themselves to more danger than they had ever experienced on their urban night climbing adventures.
A monstrous war crime haunts our hero.
Where is the Mona Lisa? And is it THE Mona Lisa?
Piracy in the Arabian Gulf with a modern twist.
Harry and friends turn Nazi hunter in cold war Berlin.
The body that washed up on the riverbank belonged to a young scientist called Jamelia. It bore all the hallmarks of a professional hit, which would have made sense if she had worked in nuclear physics or bio warfare, but she didn’t. She worked on gravitational waves, and for the life of him Harry couldn’t see how that would have got her killed.
Rome’s lost legion vanished. The reason for their disappearance, and the nature of the treasure they guarded has been lost for centuries. Now at last the truth can be told.Join Harry, Jodie and Maryam in their quest to solve the mystery of The Lost Legion

Could a 145 year old diary really destabilise our fragile peace with Russia? What does it contain that could be so dangerous? Who wrote it, and why and how was it encrypted? Jodie needs the answers, and she needs them fast. Join her as she and Harry try to unravel the mystery of The Kompromat Files.