As I watched The Imitation Game recently, I realized that while those who remember World War II might have heard about “the Enigma machine,” very few people really understand what the machine did and how truly difficult it was to break the code it created. In the movie, the British are portrayed as successful in breaking Germany’s codes, however, Americans also played a crucial role in code breaking during World War II. Oddly enough, the American story starts in 1916 with a young woman who loved reading the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Shakespeare.
Elizebeth Friedman’s incredible story is told in The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. During a visit to the Newberry Library in Chicago, Friedman asked to see the library’s copy of its rare First Folio of William Shakespeare, and afterward set into motion a series of events that would see her become one of the first code breakers (cryptanalysts) in the United States.
Elizebeth and her husband William were instrumental in breaking German codes in World War I. As they worked together, they developed the basic strategies for cryptanalysis as it exists today. While he eventually led a team that successfully broke the code of the Japanese Enigma machine and became known as the “father of the NSA,” her accomplishments and contributions―which were just as important―have been largely forgotten, kept from the public due to their classified nature or usurped by other government agencies.
During Prohibition, Elizebeth originally worked as the sole code breaker for the Coast Guard and the Treasury Department, where she reported the activities of organized crime syndicates and their rum runners. In World War II, her department worked closely with the British in tracking and eventually destroying Nazi spy rings in South America. How she progressed from a lover of poetry to using pencil and paper to break the most complex codes of her time is a fascinating read and an amazing adventure.
If you’d like to learn more, be sure to check out Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II or Modern Cryptanalysis. Closely related information on cyber security and encryption are available in online courses from Universal Class and Lynda.com.
Consumer Technology Specialist