Sherlock Holmes deciphers a secret code. Image: Mountain Xpress

Dear Reader, we always try to look out for your best interests.

So, today! We have a life-saving tip should you ever find yourself with a Top Secret Invention that could change the Course Of History.

We learned this valuable information from the WWII-era film Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942). This mystery/thriller/propaganda flick stars the fab Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the crime-solving Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

In this somewhat bizarre movie, Holmes infiltrates a Nazi spy ring that plans to kidnap noted scientist, Dr. Tobel (pronounced To-BELL, played by William Post Jr). Tobel has invented a deadly accurate, state-of-the-art bomb sight, which he’s loaning to the British War Effort. Naturally, the Nazis want to nab this Invention before the Allies put it to use.

But they’ll have to get around Sherlock Holmes first, and Holmes is, among other things, a Master Of Disguise. He wears three Nazi-fooling disguises in this film: 1) to escort Dr. Tobel to London; 2) to get valuable info when Tobel vanishes; and 3) to rescue Tobel from the nefarious Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill).

But Holmes’ theatrical apparel pales in comparison to his Powers Of Deduction, which he needs to solve the mysterious code Dr. Tobel leaves behind when he unexpectedly disappears.

Tobel’s code is composed of dancing stick men, and these figures reveal a surprise. The bomb sight has been disassembled into four pieces, each of which has been entrusted to a British Scientist.

“What a fascinating plan!” says Holmes, because he admires a fascinating Plan.

Tobel’s mysterious code. Image:

At first glance, Tobel’s code looks like a crude set of hieroglyphics, as though it’s depicting a strange pantomime or mob dance. But Holmes quickly realizes each figure represents a letter of the alphabet.

This is known as a Monoalphabetic (Letter) Substitution which means, according to, “each letter of the alphabet is replaced according to the key with another letter or symbol.”

It’s easy to figure out the key. In the English language, the most common letter is E, followed by T, A, O, I, N. (You can verify letter frequency here.)

All Holmes has to do is determine which figure occurs most frequently; he can assume this is the letter E. Then he can deduce the letter T, and so on.

See? Being a secret agent may not be as difficult as we’ve been led to believe.

However, because this code is simple to write, it’s also easy to decipher. Take note, Dear Reader – you may have to do what Dr. Tobel has done, and reverse the order of the letters so you and your Top Secret Invention aren’t discovered too soon.

Can you spot Sherlock Holmes in disguise? Image: alamy

We’d like to say this film is based on the Sherlock Holmes short story, The Adventure of the Dancing Men, by Arthur Conan Doyle, but we can’t. It looks like the only thing filmmakers have taken from the story is the stick figure code, which they transplanted into World War II.

One of the main problems with this film is Dr. Tobel: He’s surprisingly dull-witted for a renowned scientist. He’s smart enough to invent things and write fancy codes, but he can’t outwit Professor Moriarty, who kidnaps him so he can bargain with the Nazis.

Alas, this is what happens when you do groundbreaking work without a peer group.

If Tobel were accountable to some kind of Team Leader or Department Head, then all this nerve-wracking business could have been avoided. Sherlock Holmes is a smart man, but it’s unfair to make him solely responsible for Tobel and, by extension, the Fate Of The Free World.

We can’t enthusiastically recommend Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, because there are too many plot holes. However, if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, you ought to see this film – if only for tips on writing and deciphering a secret code.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon: starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill. Directed by Roy William Neill. Written by Edward T. Lowe, Scott Darling & Edmund L. Hartmann. Universal Pictures, 1942, B&W, 68 mins.

This is part of the MOVIE SCIENTIST Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner and yours truly.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

31 Comment on “How to Write a Scientific Secret Code

  1. Pingback: Movie Scientist Blogathon: Day 3 Recap – The Lonely – Silver Screenings

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