The A to Z Challenge asks bloggers to post 26 posts, one for each letter of the English alphabet, in April. Most of us choose to make these posts on a particular theme. My theme for 2022 is Codebreaking in World War II, which fits with the topic of the novel that I’m writing. Visit every day (except Sunday) in April for a new post on my topic.
F is for William and Elizebeth Friedman
William and Elizebeth Friedman were a career couple, before that was a thing. They ultimately became two of the earliest and most accomplished codebreakers in US history.
They met and married, just as World War I began, while working together on an odd and ill-fated project to prove that Francis Bacon printed secret messages in Shakespeare’s first folio. These messages, supposedly, indicated that Bacon, not Shakespeare, authored the plays.
That foray into ciphers and codes made the Friedmans among the few experts in the field of cryptography in America. They worked together to break codes and ciphers for the entire government at the beginning of World War I. As they worked, they developed skills and techniques that they taught to others engaged in the same pursuit.
After the war and the birth of their two children, their career paths diverged, but cryptography remained the focus for both of them.
William worked for the Army, writing Elements of Cryptanalysis, the manual that formed the basis of Army work in codebreaking for many years to come.
Elizebeth worked for the Coast Guard. For a while, she was the most famous cryptanalyst in the world, testifying at the trials of rum runners after breaking their codes.
On the eve of World War II, William led the effort that he is most lauded for – leading the small team that broke Purple, the machine-generated cipher used by Japanese diplomats. This gave a surprisingly useful window into both the European and Pacific theaters, throughout the war. More on that when we get to the letter ‘O’ for Ōshima, the Japanese ambassador who unwittingly revealed many of those secrets.
At the end of Prohibition, Elizebeth managed to ditch her fame (not a useful trait for secretive work) and began World War II by breaking the codes of a Nazi spy ring in South America. More on that when we get to the letter ‘H’ for Hoover – Jay Edgar being the fool in that story.
William Friedman built the Army’s codebreaking department for World War II, first in the Munitions Building in Washington DC and then, at Arlington Hall.
The Friedmans, together and separately, were key to the American codebreaking effort in both World Wars.
For more information, read The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone or The Man Who Broke Purple by Ronald Clark.