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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Woman of the Week – Elizebeth Smith Friedman

Posted May 14, 2018 4:30 PM by lmno24

She has been called America’s first female cryptanalyst.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman was born in Huntington, Indiana and she was the youngest of nine children. Her mother is responsible for the unique spelling of her name, she was very much against her daughter ever being called Eliza.

From 1911 to 1913, Friedman attended the University of Wooster in Ohio. When her mother got sick, she transferred closer to home to Hillsdale College in Michigan and graduated in 1915 with an English major. She also studied many languages and took other classes here and there in many other subjects.

She had a short stint as a substitute principal after college. Until one day, she was given a tremendous offer. A librarian she had befriended mentioned Friedman’s love of Shakespeare while talking with Colonel Fabyan, a wealthy textile merchant.

She hit it off with Fabyan and as hired to be part of the distinguished staff at his estate in Riverbank, Illinois. The staff consisted of typists, translators, a graduate student in genetics, and professionals specializing in acoustics, engineering. Riverbank was one of the first such facilities to promote cryptology.

She was able to gather a significant amount of information on the secret writings. Up until the creation of the Army's Cipher Bureau, Riverbank was the only facility capable of exploiting and solving enciphered messages.

In 1923, she was hired as a cryptanalyst for the U.S. Navy. This eventually turned into a position with the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Prohibition and of Customs. The agency’s notable projects include monitoring international drug smuggling and transport and other criminal activity. The smugglers used encrypted radio messages under the assumption no one could understand the communications but the unit was able to decode the messages. Friedman solved the bulk of intercepts collected by Coast Guard stations in San Francisco and Florida herself.

In 1928, she was sent to the Pacific Coast to teach others how to understand the messages. Then, she was recruited to Houston, Texas to solve 650 cases subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney in Texas.

Friedman's work was responsible for providing decoded information that resulted in the conviction of the narcotics-smuggling Ezra Brothers.

By 1931, she convinced Congress the country needed a dedicated cryptanalytic section and taught even more people how to study the codes. With more people trained, she also could focus on breaking down the new systems and types of messages that were popping up.

She was often called to testify in cases against drug smugglers on trial. In 1933, her work directly resulted in convictions against thirty-five bootlegging ringleaders who were found to have violated the Volstead Act.

She played a major role in settling a dispute between Canada and the U.S. over who owned the vessel called the _I'm Alone_. It was flying the Canadian flag when it was sunk by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.The Canadian government filed a $350,000 suit against the U.S., but the intelligence pulled from the 23 messages decoded by Friedman indicated U.S. ownership of the vessel.

The Canadian government, though upset they lost the suit, was impressed with her work. They sought her help cracking down on an opium dealer. Her keen eye helped decipher complicated Chinese enciphered code and lead to a successful conviction, despite her lack of knowledge with the language.

After her government work, she retired and spent time on writing projects with her husband. Her husband William F. Friedman was also a Shakespeare enthusiast and also a cryptographer. They wrote "The Cryptologist Looks at Shakespeare," eventually published as The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined.

Friedman died on October 31, 1980, in the Abbott Manor Nursing Home in Plainfield, New Jersey, at the age of 88. She is buried with her husband at Arlington National Cemetery.


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