Close

All MCPL branches will closed on January 17 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Our Virtual Branch is available 24/7.

Back to top

Breaking Codes, Breaking Barriers: An Untold Story

Elizabeth Friedman

April 1, 2019

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 contributionswhich were just as importanthave 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.

Terri M.
Consumer Technology Specialist

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

View All Blogs

Read Similar Blogs:
Biography
History

Resources You May Also Like

North American Women's Letters and Diaries, Colonial to 1950

Explore women's diaries and correspondence to 1950.
More Info

FreedomFlix

Learn history in a dynamic multimedia experience.
More Info

Contemporary Authors

Learn current information about contemporary writers.
More Info

County and Regional Histories & Atlases

Locate hard-to-find county and regional histories for CA, IL, IN, MI, NY, OH, PA, and WI.
More Info

Events You May Also Like

Lights Out, Everybody (ZOOM)

Tue, Feb 15 2022
7:00pm - 8:00pm Central
Virtual Event
Join us for a special program to learn about "the fear you can hear." Radio historian Steve Darnall will explore how radio brought mystery and horror to life for listeners during its Golden Age.

Blogs You May Also Like

Historical Libraries: The Library of Alexandria
Read More

Historical Libraries: The Library of Alexandria

The Great Library of Alexandria was a massive library that was part of a research inst
Thanksgiving
Read More

Thanksgiving

As Thanksgiving nears, people begin to gather with their family and friends to celebrate the holidays an
Seven Hidden Figures from Black History
Read More

Seven Hidden Figures from Black History

There is a very popular Oscar nominated movie currently in theaters called Hidden Figures, which recounts the tru
From the Director: Learning from the Past
Read More

From the Director: Learning from the Past

Harry Truman once said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” It may h

Was this page helpful? Yes No