Science at Home

Oct 3, 2022

Science activities to do together that inspire creativity and deep thoughts about STEM! Today's activity: Secret Scytale Messages!

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Secret Scytale Messages

Have you or your child ever wanted to be a spy? In today’s activity, we’ll create our very own secret messages, just like the ones that spies use!

These scytale messages rely on the power of mathematics to keep your messages safe and secure. The ancient Greeks and Spartan soldiers used scytale messages to communicate with each other during battles. The Greeks and Spartans used cloth or leather parchment and specially sized rods to write and read messages. In this activity, we’ll use paper and a cylindrical object like an empty soda can to create our own scytale messages.

Materials List:

1. Strips of paper

2. An empty soda can or other cylindrical object, like a cardboard tube

3. Markers

4. Tape


Set out your paper strips, tape, markers, and can. Make sure your tape is easy to reach and your paper strips are thin enough to wrap around your can.

Try This

1. Tape together some of the strips of paper into one long strip.

2. Tape one end of the long strip to the can.

3. Wrap the strip around the can so it looks like the stripes on a candy cane and tape the other end in place.

4. Write your message across the can with one letter on each “stripe” of paper.

5. Write some nonsense letters above and below your message on the paper.

6. Unwrap your secret message!

Go Further

Scytale messages use circumference, the distance around the outside of a round object, to line up the stripes of paper. No one will be able to figure out what the message says unless they wrap it around a cylinder with the same circumference as the one it was written on. When objects have different circumferences, the letters won’t match up. Your secret message is safe!


Thanks for reading Science and Play Connections, the Montana Science Center blog! We hope to see you in person at the Montana Science Center. Check out for information on our exhibits, programs, camps, and other offerings. Have a great day!