top of page


All of us come from childhood, from a country of mysteries and secrets, but by a certain age, faith in these sacralities ceases to inspire us, and this becomes, sometimes, even a burden, but not for Elizabeth Friedman - the first woman cryptologist that many have forgotten about!

It's time to remind...

Elizabeth Friedman was born in Huntington, Indiana, into a Quaker family (Protestant Christian movement), in 1892 - she was the youngest of nine children. By the way, her mother was against the name Elizabeth, so she gave her daughter a name with a special spelling Elizebeth.

She graduated from Elizabeth Hillsdale College in Michigan with a degree in English literature, she showed great interest in languages, studied Latin, Greek and German. After graduating from college, a year later, in search of work, Friedman moved to Chicago and, on the advice of friends, came to the local library.

There she learned that one rich man was looking for a girl for her project - fond of literature and wanting to solve secrets! An employee of the library dialed someone by phone number and a couple of hours later Elizabeth met an entrepreneur and philanthropist, Colonel Fabian, who offered her a job in a laboratory at her Riverbank estate, located in Geneva, Illinois.

The lab was 40 miles west of Chicago on the Fox River in the home of George Fabian's family. The tycoon, whose family got rich in selling gallantry goods, sponsored and inspired a "community of thinkers" who promoted science in areas such as acoustics, cryptography, genetics and human and animal physiology. It established the first independent research centre, which became the basis for the MI-8 National Security Agency. Riverbank's laboratory employed more than 15 highly qualified specialists - translators, specialists in the field of acoustics, mechanical engineering, graduate student in the field of genetics, and others.

Fabian commissioned Elizabeth Smith (maiden name), together with Elizabeth Wells Gallup and her sister, to test the hypothesis of authorship of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, which were actually written by the philosopher Francis, as well as to decipher the encoded messages that were to be contained in Shakespeare's plays and poems.

The laboratory was actually the only institution in the United States, before the creation of the MI-8, capable of decoding code messages and during the First World War, units of the US government often sent their employees to cryptography training.

During the First World War, the state needed talented people who would help with the decryption of intercepted enemy messages. George Fabian proposed Elizabeth and William. How Friedman helped win the dispute between the United States and England and opened cryptography courses.

While working at the Laboratory, more precisely, on her first working day on the estate, the girl met William Friedman, the son of Russian emigrants, and in May 1917, Elizabeth Smith married, they worked with him in the Laboratory for 4 years, after which in 1921 she moved to work in the Ministry of War in Washington.

Friedman later wrote about this day in her diary:

"This work has brought us very close. Perhaps if it were not for her, then he would have remained to live in his mill, spent in seeds. " "He was obsessed with studying the secrets of nature, she - in letters, in words, sentences. They were two sensible people in this crazy world. "

After working for the US Navy in 1923, Elizabeth moved to work in the customs service of the ministry. In the customs service, her efforts were aimed at combating smugglers and illegal alcohol dealers, which was extremely relevant after the introduction of the "dry law" in the United States in 1919.

"She stood in the courtroom and looked back, there were different people in the dock: sheriff's assistants, directors of a large transportation company, small bandits and sailors. They were all sitting on the other side of the prison grid just because she decrypted their secret cipher. Thanks to this code, criminals transmitted their messages about the transportation of illegal alcohol to America. "

During her work for the Coast Guard and the Customs Service during the time of the dry law, she decrypted more than 12 thousand messages from bootleggers. Thanks to her merits, the US authorities managed to bring to justice many smugglers operating in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast, as well as in Houston (Texas) and New Orleans. Thanks to her efforts, in 1933, convictions were handed down against thirty-five bootlegger leaders who were found to be in violation of the Voldest law.

But, she liked not only to solve ciphers, but also to demonstrate how she does it:

Usually, Friedman, took a piece of chalk, stood in front of the board and for several hours explained to the judge and the jury the basics of cryptanalysis, talking about simple encryption schemes, how specialists decode messages using keywords, how incomprehensible, at first glance, words can be decrypted using codebooks and diagrams.

"How can you find out from this incomprehensible mallard" MJFAK ZYWKB QATYT JSL QATS QXYGX OGTB "that this is the same as" The ship is anchored in the harbor, where and when will you send the fuel?

After one high-profile case about Friedman, they wrote in almost all newspapers and noted that "thanks to her code breaking skills, she was able to stop the largest criminal network" and became the "Nemesis of All America's Smugglers."

Her arsenal also has a case for resolving a dispute between the Canadian and American governments over the ownership of the I'm Alone sailboat. A ship flying the Canadian flag was sunk by the US Coast Guard for disobeying the "lie in the drift" signal. The Canadian government filed a lawsuit of $350 thousand against the United States on the fact of this incident, but an analysis of twenty-three radio messages decrypted by Friedman indicated that the ship is de facto US property. The true owners of the ship were identified and the Canadian lawsuit was rejected.

After that, in 1937, the Canadian government turned to E. Friedman for help in the case of opium dealer Gordon Lim and his accomplices. Despite the fact that Friedman did not speak Chinese, she managed to decipher the code of opium dealers, which was key to the prosecution. This case once again demonstrated the outstanding abilities of E. Friedman.

During World War II, a group of cryptographers led by E. Friedman, who worked for the US Coast Guard, was transferred to the subordination of the US Navy, where they hacked the code of the German Enigma encryption machine.

E. Friedman's abilities were also used in one of the most high-profile espionage cases of the Second World War - the case of V. Dickinson known as the "female doll." Velveli Dickinson and her husband were New York entrepreneurs who were accused of spying for Japan. Velveli's puppet store was a cover for her espionage activities, she transmitted information about the US Navy to her agents in South America using stenography. The correspondence of V. Dickinson, which contained a coded message about the movements of American courts in Pearl Harbor, was analyzed and decrypted by E. Friedman, on the basis of which a conviction was handed down against V. Dickinson.

In the post-war period, Elizabeth Friedman became a technical consultant and created a secure communication system for the International Monetary Fund.

Elizabeth Friedman worked closely with her husband throughout her career, but many of her merits in the field of cryptography are independent and unique.

After retiring, they continued to study Shakespeare's texts and in 1957 wrote the book "The Cryptographer's View of Shakespeare," published under the title "Checking Shakespeare Ciphers," but this is another story...

After the death of her husband in 1969, Friedman devoted her life to compiling a library and bibliography of his works, which became the largest private collection of cryptography materials in the world transferred to the D. Marshall Foundation Library in Lexington, Virginia.

Elizabeth died on October 31, 1980 in Plainfield, New Jersey, at the age of 88. Her name was immortalized in the National Security Agency Hall of Fame in 1999.


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page