December 1, 2017 10:41 AM   Subscribe

Elizebeth Friedman was even more important to cryptanalysis and history than we knew (previously), and some serious FOIA research by Jason Fagone went into a new biography of her, The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

There are current book reviews, concentrating on the author's experience, or video with a science focus.

The short version is that one of the founding geniuses of US cryptanalysis was a woman, given some respect during her lifetime but never much money or authority. She documented her history well enough that it has re-emerged from attempts to hide or claim it.

The longer version is a wonderful marriage. Two of the founding geniuses of US cryptanalysis were married to each other. She probably wouldn't have been noticed if he hadn't shared the respect for their early work. He probably wouldn't have survived the nervous breakdowns that WWII caused him without her love and care. They met in the goofiest possible mad-billionaire circumstances in the 1910s, helped the US through the dawn of wired and wireless codes in WWI, caught rumrunners, caught Nazis; working very quietly because that's the best cryptanalytic practice.

They did a lot of the work that made the FBI famous, in fact, because the FBI generally and Hoover personally wanted the glory and were happy to push Elizebeth into the background and try to classify her into silence. That's the beginning of problems we still have.
posted by clew (13 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I just finished reading this and definitely recommend it! She certainly deserves more recognition and Hoover unsurprisingly comes across as a publicity hungry jerk.
posted by TedW at 10:46 AM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am a STEM graduate student who will be finishing up my PhD in the spring. As you might expect, I'm feeling very burned out and frustrated. Partially because I'm sick of my work, partially because of politics, and partially because I'm sick of all of the crap that I see my fellow Women in STEM go through on a daily basis. Anyways, I finished reading "The Woman Who Smashed Codes" last week and by the end I was crying sloppy, happy tears. It was incredibly cathartic and inspiring to read Elizebeth's story.

My favorite quote from the book:

“And there comes a day when Elizebeth just thinks: no. There is nothing wrong with me. What’s wrong is with other people. This is the moment that hurls her out to the rest of her life. The savaging of Nazis, the birth of a science: It begins in the day when a twenty-three-year-old American woman decides to trust her doubt and dig with her own mind.”

I would highly recommend this book.
posted by lucy.jakobs at 11:09 AM on December 1, 2017 [8 favorites]

Thank you so much for posting this! I'm adding it to my Christmas wish list :)
posted by Mouse Army at 11:16 AM on December 1, 2017

Slate's The Gist did an interesting interview with the author a few weeks ago.
posted by mmascolino at 11:19 AM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I read this book based on a blurb in National Geographic recently. It is an -outstanding- book. Strongly agree with recommendations!

I also think there was an interesting story with her husband's mental illness that perhaps is another book, and it's neat that the book mentioned he was an early mentor of Claude Shannon.
posted by Dashy at 11:37 AM on December 1, 2017

At first I was like, 'what on earth happened to that title', but then I was just plain fascinated after that. Thanks, eh?
posted by Lizard at 11:58 AM on December 1, 2017

Despite being casually interested in cryptography and cryptanalysis for a while, I'd never heard of her! I look forward to picking up the book and correcting that oversight.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:07 PM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

clew - Can you unpack the FOIA comment, or point me to more on that aspect of the story?
posted by Glomar response at 12:20 PM on December 1, 2017

This excerpt is what got me to buy the book.
posted by TedW at 12:30 PM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Glomar response, the FOIA might not be mentioned in the online reviews. Its use is mentioned in the author's introduction, p. xiv.

The Friedmans organized and annotated and indexed archives, plural, of cryptanalytic history, which were variously censored or forgotten by the NSA. The Puzzle Palace depended on one of them and the gaps in the index directed FOIA requests to the redacted files (TWWSC, p. 337).
posted by clew at 5:01 PM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the recommendation. I am now number 67 on the on the hold queue at the New York Public Library. Obviously, word has gotten out.
posted by AMyNameIs at 5:32 PM on December 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nthing the wonderfulness of this book!
posted by scruss at 7:20 PM on December 1, 2017

The Most Awesome Codebreaker in World War II Was a Woman (Jason Fagone for Wired, Dec. 27, 2017)
One married couple was responsible for the foundations of modern code breaking, and the principles that gave the NSA a head start in cryptanalysis. Though the husband, William Friedman, is usually apportioned the lion’s share of the credit, his wife Elizebeth Friedman was in every way his equal. During World War II, both worked under total secrecy, and only now are we learning about Elizebeth’s critical work uncovering the secrets of Nazi spies—and cracking the codes of the notorious “Doll Lady” suspected of working for the Japanese.
More coverage of this fascinating lady, and references to Velvalee Dickinson, the “Doll Woman” (FBI.gov - history of famous cases, no mention of who worked the case, just "the FBI" in the most generic of terms)
posted by filthy light thief at 6:39 AM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

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