- Secret decoder ring
A secret decoder was an inexpensive toy popular among young children from the 1930s through the rest of the 20th century. It was occasionally included as a toy prize in boxes of
breakfast cerealand snack foods, such as Cracker Jack. Usually, as radio premiums, a proof of purchase (boxtop, label, or jar seal) was sent to the sponsor by mail. Among the most famous decoders were the ones given to kids by the makers of Ovaltine. Ovaltine started cryptological premiums for the " Little Orphan Annie" radio program, and continued with the " Captain Midnight" radio and television programs. Most of them were badges. Three were pocket items, none were rings.
There is some confusion between secret decoders and decoder rings. Most radio-premium decoders had circular scales: they were descendants of the
cipher disk, developed in the 15th Century by Leon Battista Alberti. Since both the cipher alphabet scale and plaintext letters or, more usually, numbers were circular, some people consider the circular scales "rings," adding to the confusion. The majority of radio-premium decoders were pins or badges. Number scales were generally used in radio premiums because each number from 1 through 26 has a unique sound, whereas letters often sound similar (e.g., E, B, D, C, G, T, Z), making copying messages more error prone.
There is a myth that decoder rings were premiums offered by radio programs. This is in error and possibly could have evolved conceptually from the "secret compartment ring" radio premiums and the "secret decoder pin" radio premiums. However, fuzzy memories established the idea of "secret decoder rings," so some were developed. Perhaps the most ornate of these was the "PF Secret Decoder Ring," a premium from PF Shoes, in connection with the "
Jonny Quest" television program. A later, less ornate decoder ring was offered by Kix Cereals. In the 1960s, the men's magazine, "Oui", offered a Captain JetDecoder Ring.
Decoders, whether badges or rings, were a fun way for kids to tap into the fascination that children often have with
encryption, ciphers, and secret codes that they could use to send hidden messages back and forth to one another. A number of companies that marketed decoders to children (such as Ovaltine) often included "secret messages" on various radioshows aimed at children. The kids needed to use their decoders to decode the secret message (which was almost invariably a preview to the next episode of the show, which was usually a serial).
There is an urban legend that the "Little Orphan Annie" radio show transmitted a secret message that deciphered to, "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine." Actually, no such message was ever sent, but the legend was immortalized in the movie "
A Christmas Story". [Citation
last = Olsen
first = John
title = A short history of Radio's Orphan Annie and her Decoder Badges
url = http://www.radioarchives.org/annie/
accessdate = 2008-05-19]
In 2000, Ovaltine offered a Secret Decoder Ring, advertised on the label of their product. The response was much greater than had been anticipated, and the offer was extended months after its initially planned end date.
* [http://www.radioarchives.org/annie/ Picture of various decoder badges including Ovaltine secret decoder ring]
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