"Our Office Doesn't Make 'Em, We Only Break 'Em"

(Elizebeth Smith Friedman was an unsung heroine of the Second War -- and much more besides.
For International Women's Day, a brief look at her -- until recently -- mostly untold story.
Even now, some of the details remain classified.)

Elizebeth Friedman (Wikipedia photo)

     You'd probably have liked Elizebeth Smith. I know I would have.
     I won't go deep into her background -- you can do that for yourself -- but she is today known as "the woman who smashed codes" (the title of her biography, which is well worth reading).
     In 1915, she was hired as a recent arts graduate by an eccentric millionaire -- George Fabyan, to work at his 500-acre "research" facility near Geneva, Ill., helping plumb the depths of Shakespeare's First Folio for "proof" that the plays were actually written by Sir Francis Bacon.
     The experience at Riverbank, as it was called, left her somewhat bewildered, as well it might, but did introduce her to her husband, a geneticist named William F. Friedman, who was equally interested in but bemused by the odd and ultimately doomed task.
     When the US became involved in the First War, however, the two became acknowledged code-breakers, working first from Riverbank and then from Washington, even though neither had a background in mathematics, usually deemed essential to such work.
     While William eventually wound up with the US Army Signals Intelligence Service (the group he oversaw later famously broke the Japanese diplomatic coding device, nicknamed "Purple"), she was a civilian hire by the US Treasury Department -- specifically the Coast Guard -- to bust up booze and drug smuggling encryptions during and after Prohibition. Her tiny crew succeeded beyond all expectations.
     When the US entered the war, and still a civilian, she became enmeshed in the War Department work, including that of the erratic -- and aptly named -- William "Wild Bill" Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS became the CIA).
     Her team's successful decryptions of the Enigma machine transmissions paralleled those of Alan Turing's more famous crew at Bletchley Park in England, although they came at the problem from somewhat different perspectives.
     To the surprise of no one these days, she loathed J. Edgar Hoover, whose ill-timed, idiotic and self-serving strategies aimed at "spy-catching" in South America caused her cryptanalyists weeks, if not months, of work breaking the ensuing new ciphers.
     Following the war, she designed secure communication for the International Monetary Fund, among other activities.
     Throughout it all, she managed to raise two children and provide vital support for her chronically ailing husband, who despite bouts of depression and angst, still managed to lay the basis for the National Security Administration and continue his wartime work of designing unbreakable coding machines.
     The NSA belatedly acknowledged her contribution to cryptanalysis -- and not incidentally, to protecting the Western Hemisphere during the War -- by adding her name to its William Friedman Building in 2002. Time ... and past time.
     When she died Oct. 31, 1980, her ashes were added to William's Arlington grave, and, along with her name, a fitting Bacon quote: Knowledge Is Power.
     Except once again, Elizebeth had a last chuckle. The inscription itself is carefully encrypted. When decoded, it produces the initials of her beloved husband: WFF.

NSA Summary

Marshall Foundation Library Collection

William Friedman Tomb Cipher

"The Woman Who Smashed Codes" Biography by Jason Fagone

Views: 52

Comment by alsoknownas on March 8, 2018 at 7:05am

I like these short biographical pieces you do from time to time.

Comment by Steel Breeze on March 8, 2018 at 8:11am

R&L.....enjoyed it...

Comment by Boanerges on March 8, 2018 at 8:13am

Thanks, AKA. I get a bee in my bonnet periodically about some one or some thing and feel the need to inflict it on others.

Glad you liked it, SB.

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on March 8, 2018 at 8:50am

Thank You!!

Comment by koshersalaami on March 8, 2018 at 9:55am


Comment by Rosigami on March 8, 2018 at 11:21am

Uplifting! Thank you for this.

Comment by Boanerges on March 9, 2018 at 8:57am

You're more than welcome, Jon.

Yeah, she was, Kosh.

You're welcome too, Rosi. Glad you liked it.


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