The Incredible True Story Of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, The ‘Mother Of Cryptology’ in WWI

Published: 12 January 2023

By Kaleena Fraga
via the All That’s Interesting web site

Elizebeth Smith Friedman


Elizebeth Smith Friedman

American cryptologist Elizebeth Smith Friedman cracked codes during World War I, Prohibition, and World War II — but her accomplishments weren’t revealed until after her death.

or decades, the United States had a secret weapon. During World War I, World War II, and Prohibition, the country frequently turned to a talented codebreaker named Elizebeth Smith Friedman to crack enemy ciphers and rumrunners’ secret codes alike.

Gifted with the ability to notice patterns that others missed, Friedman became one of the first American codebreakers during World War I. In the subsequent decade, she and her clerk cracked 12,000 encryptions sent by bootleggers during Prohibition. And during World War II, Friedman’s codebreaking skills helped avert a Nazi plot to start coups in South America.

Yet for all her accomplishments, Friedman’s work often went unnoticed. Men like J. Edgar Hoover frequently took credit, and Friedman herself promised to never speak of her work during her lifetime.

But in 2008, declassified files revealed the truth — that Elizebeth Friedman, the “Mother of Cryptology,” had played a crucial role as a codebreaker during some of the nation’s most perilous moments.

How A Love Of Shakespeare Led To Codebreaking

Born on Aug. 26, 1892, Elizebeth Smith Friedman — so named by her mother so that she would never be called “Eliza” — had a love of words from the beginning. According to Time she enjoyed reading and writing from a young age, and Smithsonian Magazine reports that she insisted on attending college as an English Literature major against her father’s wishes.

Settling in Chicago, Friedman had a chance encounter at the Newberry Library that changed her life. While visiting the library to examine a 1623 original edition of Shakespeare’s First Folios, a librarian recommended she contact George Fabyan, a millionaire hoping to use codebreaking to prove that Shakespeare’s works had actually been written by Sir Francis Bacon.

Working for Fabyan at Riverbank Laboratories, Friedman learned about codebreaking — and met her husband, William. According to the U.S. Naval Institute, they were drawn together by a disdain for one of their superiors, who they believed saw patterns where none existed, and their shared love for cracking codes.

Read the entire article on the All That’s Interesting web site here:

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