Code Girls: The Untold Story of the Women Cryptographers Who Fought WWII at the Intersection of Language and Mathematics
By Maria Popova
During WWII, when Richard Feynman was recruited as one of the country’s most promising physicists to work on the Manhattan Project in a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, his young wife Arline was writing him love letters in code from her deathbed. While Arline was merely having fun with the challenge of bypassing the censors at the laboratory’s Intelligence Office, all across the country thousands of women were working as cryptographers for the government — women who would come to constitute more than half of America’s codebreaking force during the war. While Alan Turing was decrypting Nazi communication across the Atlantic, some eleven thousand women were breaking enemy code in America.
Their story, as heroic as that of the women who dressed and fought as men in the Civil War, as fascinating and untold as those of the “Harvard Computers” who revolutionized astronomy in the nineteenth century and the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration in the twentieth, is what Liza Mundy tells in Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (public library).
A splendid writer and an impressive scholar, Mundy tracked down and interviewed more than twenty surviving “code girls,” trawled hundreds of boxes containing archival documents, and successfully petitioned for the declassification of more than a dozen oral histories. Out of these puzzle pieces she constructs a masterly portrait of the brilliant, unheralded women — women with names like Blanche and Edith and Dot — who were recruited into lives they never could have imagined, lives believed to have saved incalculable other lives by bringing the war to a sooner end.
Driven partly by patriotism, but mostly by pure love of that singular intersection of mathematics and language where cryptography lives, these “high grade” young women, as the military recruiters called them, came from all over the country and had only one essential thing in common — their answers to two seemingly strange questions. Mundy traces the inception of this female codebreaking force:
A handful of letters materialized in college mailboxes as early as November 1941. Ann White, a senior at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, received hers on a fall afternoon not long after leaving an exiled poet’s lecture on Spanish romanticism.
The letter was waiting when she returned to her dormitory for lunch. Opening it, she was astonished to see that it had been sent by Helen Dodson, a professor in Wellesley’s Astronomy Department. Miss Dodson was inviting her to a private interview in the observatory. Ann, a German major, had the sinking feeling she might be required to take an astronomy course in order to graduate. But a few days later, when Ann made her way along Wellesley’s Meadow Path and entered the observatory, a low domed building secluded on a hill far from the center of campus, she found that Helen Dodson had only two questions to ask her.
Did Ann White like crossword puzzles, and was she engaged to be married?
Elizabeth Colby, a Wellesley math major, received the same unexpected summons. So did Nan Westcott, a botany major; Edith Uhe (psychology); Gloria Bosetti (Italian); Blanche DePuy (Spanish); Bea Norton (history); and Ann White’s good friend Louise Wilde, an English major. In all, more than twenty Wellesley seniors received a secret invitation and gave the same replies. Yes, they liked crossword puzzles, and no, they were not on the brink of marriage.
Letters and clandestine questioning sessions spread across other campuses, particularly those known for strong scientific curricula — from Vassar, where astronomer Maria Mitchell paved the way for American women in science, to Mount Holyoke, the “castle of science” where Emily Dickinson composed her botanical herbarium. The young women who answered the odd questions correctly were summoned to secret meetings, where they learned they were being invited to work for the U.S. Navy as “cryptanalysts.” They were to take a training in codebreaking and, if they completed it successfully, would take jobs with the Navy after graduation, as civilians. They could tell no one about the appointment — not their parents, not their girlfriends, not their fiancés.
First, they had to solve a series of problem sets, which would be graded in Washington to determine if they made the cut to the next stage. Mundy writes:
And so the young women did their strange new homework. They learned which letters of the English language occur with the greatest frequency; which letters often travel together in pairs, like s and t; which travel in triplets, like est and ing and ive, or in packs of four, like tion. They studied terms like “route transposition” and “cipher alphabets” and “polyalphabetic substitution cipher.” They mastered the Vigenère square, a method of disguising letters using a tabular method dating back to the Renaissance. They learned about things called the Playfair and Wheatstone ciphers. They pulled strips of paper through holes cut in cardboard. They strung quilts across their rooms so that roommates who had not been invited to take the secret course could not see what they were up to. They hid homework under desk blotters. They did not use the term “code breaking” outside the confines of the weekly meetings, not even to friends taking the same course.
These young women’s acumen, and their willingness to accept the cryptic invitations, would become America’s secret weapon in assembling a formidable wartime codebreaking operation in record time. They would also furnish a different model of genius — one more akin to the relational genius that makes a forest successful. Mundy writes:
Code breaking is far from a solitary endeavor, and in many ways it’s the opposite of genius. Or, rather: Genius itself is often a collective phenomenon. Success in code breaking depends on flashes of inspiration, yes, but it also depends on the careful maintaining of files, so that a coded message that has just arrived can be compared to a similar message that came in six months ago. Code breaking during World War II was a gigantic team effort. The war’s cryptanalytic achievements were what Frank Raven, a renowned naval code breaker from Yale who supervised a team of women, called “crew jobs.” These units were like giant brains; the people working in them were a living, breathing, shared memory. Codes are broken not by solitary individuals but by groups of people trading pieces of things they have learned and noticed and collected, little glittering bits of numbers and other useful items they have stored up in their heads like magpies, things they remember while looking over one another’s shoulders, pointing out patterns that turn out to be the key that unlocks the code.
But although codebreaking has entered the popular imagination through the portal of war, often depicted with a kind of intellectual glamor that aligns it with spies and superheroes, it spans a far vaster cultural spectrum of uses as a tool of communication and un-communication. Mundy examines its history and essential elements:
Codes have been around for as long as civilization, maybe longer. Virtually as soon as humans developed the ability to speak and write, somebody somewhere felt the desire to say something to somebody else that could not be understood by others. The point of a coded message is to engage in intimate, often urgent communication with another person and to exclude others from reading or listening in. It is a system designed to enable communication and to prevent it.
Both aspects are important. A good code must be simple enough to be readily used by those privy to the system but tough enough that it can’t be easily cracked by those who are not. Julius Caesar developed a cipher in which each letter was replaced by a letter three spaces ahead in the alphabet (A would be changed to D, B to E, and so forth), which met the ease-of-use requirement but did not satisfy the “toughness” standard. Mary, Queen of Scots, used coded missives to communicate with the faction that supported her claim to the English throne, which — unfortunately for her — were read by her cousin Elizabeth and led to her beheading. In medieval Europe, with its shifting alliances and palace intrigues, coded letters were an accepted convention, and so were quiet attempts to slice open diplomatic pouches and read them. Monks used codes, as did Charlemagne, the Inquisitor of Malta, the Vatican (enthusiastically and often), Islamic scholars, clandestine lovers. So did Egyptian rulers and Arab philosophers. The European Renaissance — with its flowering of printing and literature and a coming-together of mathematical and linguistic learning — led to a number of new cryptographic systems. Armchair philosophers amused themselves pursuing the “perfect cipher,” fooling around with clever tables and boxes that provided ways to replace or redistribute the letters in a message, which could be sent as gibberish and reassembled at the other end. Some of these clever tables were not broken for centuries; trying to solve them became a Holmes-and-Moriarty contest among thinkers around the globe.
Even in the context of war, even in the subset of women cryptographers, the history of codebreaking predates WWII. It stretches back to the world’s first Great War, to a strange haven under the auspices of a Mad Hatter character by the name of George Fabyan — an eccentric, habitually disheveled millionaire with little formal education, who built himself an elaborate private Wonderland complete with a working lighthouse, a Japanese garden, a Roman-style bathing pool fed by fresh spring water, a Dutch mill transported piece by piece from Holland, and an enormous rope replica of a spider’s web for recreation. On these strange grounds, Fabyan constructed Riverbank Laboratories — a pseudo-scientific shrine to his determination to “wrest the secrets of nature” by way of acoustics, agriculture, and, crucially, literary manuscripts.
Fabyan subscribed to a conspiracy theory that the works of William Shakespeare were actually authored by Sir Francis Bacon, who allegedly encoded evidence of his authorship into the texts. The millionaire acquired rare manuscripts, including a 1623 folio of one of Shakespeare’s plays, then hired a team of researchers — he could afford the best minds in the country — to prove the theory by analyzing the text in search of coded messages. Under these improbable circumstances, he incubated the talent that would become the U.S. military’s first concerted cryptanalytic force.
Among Fabyan’s hires was Elizebeth Smith — an intelligent and driven young midwesterner, one of nine children, who had put herself through college after her father denied her the opportunity. In 1916, Fabyan recruited Smith to be the public face of his Baconian codebreaking operation. Soon after she moved to Riverbank Laboratories, Smith began to suspect that the Shakespearian conspiracy theory was just that, sustained by a cultish team of cranks who fed on confirmation bias as they searched for “evidence.” Among Fabyan’s staff was another doubter — William Friedman, a polymathish geneticist from Cornell, living on the second floor of the windmill. Elizebeth and William bonded over their dissent on long bike rides and swims in the Roman pool. Within a year, they were married — a marriage of equals in every way. But although they saw clearly the ludicrousness of Fabyan’s theory, they were too fascinated by the pure art-science of codes and ciphers to leave. Elizebeth moved into the windmill. The couple would soon become the country’s most sought-after codebreaking team as the government outsourced its cryptanalytic efforts to Riverbank. But although the Friedmans worked in tandem, when the Army set out to hire them, they offered William $3,000 and Elizebeth $1,520.
When the team began working for the government in Washington — both still in their twenties, heading a team of thirty — they were decoding every kind of intercepted foreign communication suspected to contain military information. Some did. Most did not — one turned out to be a Czechoslovakian love letter.
Elizebeth Friedman — who went on to have a formidable career in law enforcement, training men for a new codebreaking unit for the Coast Guard — is one of the many women whose stories, all different and all fascinating, Mundy tells in Code Girls, a thoroughly wonderful read in its entirety. Complement it with the story of the the unheralded women astronomers who revolutionized our understanding of the universe decades before they could vote.
Published December 11, 2017