Elizebeth Friedman, the godmother of crypto-analysis

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was one of the first cryptographers and one of the few women in the early years of crypto-analysis, and helped lead a team that cracked dozens of Enigma codes during World War II. Smith had been a public-school teacher but was looking for work in 1916 when she mentioned to a librarian in Chicago that she had studied Shakespeare, and the librarian mentioned this to Colonel George Fabyan, a wealthy and eccentric textile merchant who also had a fascination with the playwright.

Smith was soon hired to work at Fabyan’s private Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois, one of the first facilities in the U.S. founded to study cryptography. She and another cryptographer she eventually married, William Friedman, were employed to decipher hidden messages that were allegedly contained in Shakespeare’s plays and poems, which Fabyan hoped would reveal the fact that Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote all of Shakespeare’s work. They were eventually hired away by the US government (over the protests of Fabyan, who intercepted their mail and removed multiple offers of employment), and their work formed the basis of what would become the National Security Agency.

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