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The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely…

by Jason Fagone

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5302331,987 (4.11)33
Traces the life of Elizebeth Smith, who met and married groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman and worked with him to discover and expose Nazi spy rings in South America by cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine. "In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare's plays. She moved to the tycoon's lavish estate outside of Chicago expecting to spend her days poring through old books. But the rich man's close ties to the U.S. government, and the urgencies of war, quickly transformed Elizebeth's mission. She soon learned to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking--the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her on the estate was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner. Elizebeth and William were in many ways the Adam and Eve of the National Security Agency, the U.S. institution that monitors and intercepts foreign communications to glean intelligence. In [this book, journalist] Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman who played an integral role in our nation's history--from the Great War to the Cold War. He traces Elizebeth's developing career through World War I, Prohibition, and the struggle against fascism. She helped catch gangsters and smugglers, exposed a Nazi spy ring in South America, and fought a clandestine battle of wits against Hitler's Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German operatives to conceal their communications. And through it all, she served as muse to her husband, a master of puzzles, who astonished friends and foes alike. Inside an army vault in Washington, he worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma--and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life. Fagone unveils for the first time America's codebreaking history through the prism of one remarkable woman's life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that shaped the modern intelligence community. Rich in detail, The Woman Who Smashed Codes pays tribute to an unsung hero whose story belongs alongside those of other great female technologists, like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, and whose oft-hidden contributions altered the course of the century."--Jacket.… (more)
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» See also 33 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
Elizebeth Friedman was someone I had never heard of until I read this book. I have learned so much about the codebreaking that went on not only during 2 world wars but also during the 20s and 30s with smuggling. I also learned some things about WW II that I did not know. This is a well-written book about a fascinating lady who made her mark on history, largely unnoticed. ( )
  hobbitprincess | Mar 26, 2020 |
Very interesting information about a subject I know a bit about and a couple people I never heard of. The author was rather more interested in the sexism Elizebeth encountered than in her (their) codebreaking, which was what I wanted to know about - not helped by the fact that the ebook I read had real formatting problems with codes formed by positioning letters (fence-post, or the demonstration substitution alphabet - they appeared in long lines going down the page, one letter per line, so it was impossible to see the connections between letters because the lines were unbroken). I learned a lot about codebreaking during both world wars and the period between - Prohibition, for one thing. The partnership between the Friedmans was excellent to see - and as usual, the government totally screwed up (leaving aside J. Edgar Hoover's cheating for power). If they'd had the two of them working together, rather than not even allowed to talk about their work to one another (because security), WWII might even have been shorter and less deadly. The author was a lot more worried about the sexism (which definitely affected their lives) than Elizebeth was - it was just the way things were, to her. To my mind, she had the choice between pushing for personal recognition (with all the drawbacks thereof - from men objecting to her pushing in, to publicity which bothered her when she did get it) and pushing for recognition of what _they_ had done, with her husband's name alone on most of it. And I doubt she even saw that as a choice. If William had tried to suppress her, it would have been different, but he loudly and publicly considered her his equal or better - so promoting _their_ work was not suppressing herself, but fitting the message (of these things which were important to make known) to the times. Now I want to read half a dozen other books about codebreaking - The Puzzle Palace, and about Bletchley Park, and and... I don't know if I'll ever reread this book, but what it taught me was valuable as well as fascinating. And the peripheral discussion of how the author found this information after all these years - Elizebeth's archived papers, and more - was almost as interesting as the story he discovered there. ( )
  jjmcgaffey | Feb 28, 2020 |
Complex story of Elizebeth (yes that's the proper spelling) and William Friedman, among the first codebreakers (cryptanalysts) in the USA. Follows their history at the Riverbank facility through their work in World War I and II and the times in between, chasing bootleggers and Nazis, particularly in South America. Covers the beginning of the OSS and the NSA and how her fantastic mind worked to break the most complex of codes by using chiefly hand work, including the Enigma machine of the Germans. Tells the truth of how J.Edgar Hoover claimed credit for work actually done by Elizebeth and her crew of Coast Guard (later Navy) analysts. ( )
  LindaLeeJacobs | Feb 15, 2020 |
A nicely judged biography of an unduly overlooked cryptographer, Elizebeth (sic) Smith Friedman. Jason Fagone makes a convincing case for her having been a key figure in the professionalisation of cryptanalysis in the US in the early twentieth century. Smith Friedman got her start in the 1910s working for an eccentric millionaire, George Fabyan, who was convinced that Francis Bacon really wrote Shakespeare’s plays (sigh) and had hidden cyphers within them that proved as much. While Smith Friedman didn’t buy the theory, she did meet her future husband—William Friedman—while in Fabyan’s employ. They would go on to work for the US government breaking codes during both world wars, with Elizebeth playing a key role in the disruption of Nazi spy networks in South America. Fagone largely resists the temptation to sensationalise or claim exceptionalism that bedevils so many popular histories. ( )
  siriaeve | Dec 14, 2019 |
This biography is a fascinating story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman. She and her husband, William, founded modern codebreaking in the U.S. Her success in helping the American government capture smugglers and Nazis has been untold after the FBI confiscated both her and William's reports and writings. The couple broke codes in order to protect their country and in the process helped to establish the surveillance giant NSA. There are so many details that at times the story drags, but I enjoyed learning so much about the behind-the-scenes conduct of wartime policy. ( )
  terran | Nov 3, 2019 |
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The king hath note of all that they intend, by interception which they dream not of.  Shakespeare, Henry V, 1599
Knowledge itself is power.  Francis Bacon, Sacred Meditations, 1597
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This is a love story.
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