Fagone 2017

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Fagone, Jason. The Woman Who Smashed Codes. 2017.

Riverbank Laboratories, a bizarre institution now abandoned, a place that helped create the modern NSA but which the NSA knew little about. Elizebeth and her future husband, William Friedman, had lived there when they were young, between 1916 and 1920, when they discovered a series of techniques and patterns that changed cryptology forever.

Elizebeth later wrote that seeing the Folio gave her the same feeling “that an archaeologist has, when he suddenly realizes that he has discovered a tomb of a great pharaoh.”

George Fabyan was a wealthy Chicago businessman who often visited the library to examine the First Folio. He said he believed the book contained secret messages written in cipher, and he had made it known that he wished to hire an assistant, preferably a “young, personable, attractive college graduate who knew English literature,” to further this research.

Fabyan went on. He said that a brilliant female scholar who worked for him, Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, had already succeeded in unweaving the plays and isolating Bacon’s hidden threads. But for reasons that would become clear, Mrs. Gallup needed an assistant with youthful energy and sharp eyes. This is why Fabyan wanted Elizebeth to join him and Mrs. Gallup at Riverbank—his private home, his 350-acre estate, but also so much more.

Fabyan kept circling back to the primary mission of the laboratories, the glimmering idea at the bottom of it all: immortality. Extending human life. Each person could live to be one hundred or more, he said. The thinkers of Riverbank had sequestered themselves in this lush, remote location to learn how not to die.

The aristocratic appearance of the women was so incongruous that Elizebeth looked them over a few times to be sure they were real. They were sisters. The first, an older woman, wore a dark dress and a necklace that glittered with jewels. Her gray hair was tied in a bun and escaped in wisps that framed a delicate face. It seemed as if a French duchess had been teleported to the prairie, and her voice dripped with learning. Her name, she said, was Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup. She ran the Riverbank Cipher School. The other woman was her younger, darker-haired sister, Miss Kate Wells.

The dominant personality that night was Mrs. Gallup. As the smell of meat and the noise of clinking silverware filled the room, and the servants whisked away the empty plates, Mrs. Gallup told stories of her travels while researching Francis Bacon and Shakespeare

curled up like scrolls. She rolled them out to their full length to show Elizebeth, and placed weights on the ends to prevent them from curling up again. The sheets were beautiful and full of hand-drawn letters of the alphabet in subtle variations, lowercase and uppercase, roman and italic:

Mrs. Gallup said she had drawn these letterforms from photographic enlargements of the Newberry Library’s First Folio of Shakespeare, and the drawings had helped reveal the secrets that Francis Bacon had woven into Shakespeare’s plays. In some way Elizebeth didn’t understand yet, the hidden messages were embedded in the shapes of the letters themselves, in small variations between an f on one page of the Folio and an f on another.

Together Elizebeth and Mrs. Gallup would rewrite the history of seventeenth-century England—and by extension, the history of all English literature.

The big question then became: If the secret messages discovered by Mrs. Gallup weren’t really there, what was she seeing? Elizebeth never once suspected that Mrs. Gallup was a fraud. Deception was not in her. The only possibility was that she had been somehow deceiving herself

This is exactly like binary code, the language at the root of computers, and Morse code as well. In all of these systems, just two symbols, arranged in different combinations, can stand for many others. Binary code uses 0s and 1s, Morse code dots and dashes. Francis Bacon discovered the basic principle in 1623.

This was the heart of Mrs. Gallup’s method. She scoured photo enlargements of pages from Shakespeare’s First Folio and other Elizabethan books, looking for minute differences in the shapes of letterforms to discover the “biformed alphabet” she believed Bacon had planted in the text—the two alphabets with letters of different shapes. Then she drew charts of the a-form letters and the b-form letters. Then she went back through the original texts of the old books and compared each letter to the drawings of the letters on her charts, deciding if a letter was an a-form or a b-form. After classifying five letters in this manner, she was able to check Bacon’s key (aaaaa=A, aaaab=B, aaaba=C) and write one letter of the final message

She argued that if other people could not replicate her findings, it was their own fault—they had poor eyesight, they were lazy, they were uninspired.

She produced testimony from researchers in England and America who swore that they had been able to replicate her decipherments: Mrs. Gertrude Horsford Fiske, Mrs. Henry Pott, Mr. Henry Seymour, Mrs. D. J. Kindersley, Mr. James Phinney Baxter. And of all her supporters, no one had more faith than George Fabyan. He invited Mrs. Gallup and her sister to Riverbank in 1912 and gave them carte blanche to pursue their investigation to its ultimate end. There was nothing he would not buy or build to support her work, no mode of investigation too outlandish or expensive.

To find the secret message, Elizebeth would need to squint at the Folio page through the glass, decide if each letter was an a-form or a b-form, and write a dash or a slash on the typed worksheet above the corresponding letter: a dash for a-form, a slash for b-form.

Women had the stamina and patience to look at text all day, and complained less. “Our experience at Riverbank,” Fabyan wrote, “has demonstrated that women are particularly adapted for this kind of work.”

Mrs. Gallup sat at a handsome wooden desk, peering through an oblong looking glass at photo enlargements of pages from old books. The enlargements were made by William Friedman, the geneticist with the white buck shoes who had caught Elizebeth’s eye at her first dinner in the Lodge. Because William happened to be handy with a camera and a darkroom, Fabyan had roped him into the cipher project, even though it wasn’t his job, and he often visited the Lodge to drop off new prints for Mrs. Gallup

Mrs. Gallup’s technique depended on discerning small yet consistent fluctuations in letterforms in books made long ago, with the technology of a more primitive era. It strained credulity to think that the printers, setting the type by hand in 1623, could have duplicated these minute fluctuations across hundreds of copies of the First Folio, and in fact the variations between different

Fabyan doubled down on publicity. He released a picture book for children, Ciphers for the Little Ones, that taught the story of Bacon and his biliteral cipher. He printed business cards alleging that Bacon was the bastard

Military officials were of course reluctant to give any power or responsibility to a fake colonel in Illinois, but they had little choice but to accept Fabyan’s offer. They were desperate for codebreakers because of the way radio and wireless technology was changing the art of war.

their secrets, armies had begun encrypting their wireless messages before sending them over the wireless in Morse

Elizebeth and William had begun at Riverbank by looking for the false patterns of Mrs. Gallup. But now, over the next several years, they found ways of seeing true patterns.

Between 1917 and 1920, George Fabyan used Riverbank’s vanity press to publish eight pamphlets that described new kinds of codebreaking strategies.

were little books with unassuming titles on plain white covers. Today they are considered to be the foundation stones of the modern science of cryptology. Known as the Riverbank Publications, they “rise up like a landmark in the history of cryptology,” writes the historian David Kahn. “Nearly all of them broke new ground, and mastery of the information they first set forth is still regarded as the prerequisite for a higher cryptologic education.”

A Harvard professor had recently counted the words in a long English text, and the prairie codebreakers read his study. Of 100,000 total words, only 10,161 were unique, and just 10 words accounted for 26,677 of the 100,000: “the,” “of,” “and,” “to,” “a,” “in,” “that,” “it,” “is,” “I.”

For the first eight months of the war, as incredible as it sounds, William and Elizebeth, and their team at Riverbank, did all of the codebreaking for every part of the U.S. government: for the State Department, the War Department (army), the navy, and the Department of Justice.

To drive home this point, William even invented a new word: “cryptanalysis,” synonymous with “codebreaking.” The new Riverbank methods were not magic but a species of analysis, similar to the analysis performed by a chemist or an astronomer or an engineer designing a bridge

As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Shannon realized that electronic circuits could be arranged to solve logic problems and make decisions, and that 0s and 1s could encode all the world’s information, from a song to a Van Gogh.

reduce the noise of the channel between you

Every powerful government on earth realized this now: the urgent need to invent new kinds of machines to make cipher messages, machines that were faster, easier to use, and dramatically more secure, all at once. “All the countries of the world were trying to develop something that nobody else could read and make sense out of,” Elizebeth later said. “They were all playing with machines.”

There’s all the difference in the world between machine cipher and paper cipher,” Elizebeth explained later. When trying to break a paper cipher, with pencil and paper and brain alone, you had to depend on finding repetitions, patterns in the messages. But the new breed of machines generated what seemed to be patternless winds of letters. “You can start from here and go to the end of the world and never have a repetition,” Elizebeth said. In theory, the only way to read a message was to know the starting configuration of the machine’s internal parts—the “key”—which only the sender and recipient would possess.

Until the invention of digital ciphers in the 1960s, the field of cryptology would be defined by heroic human attacks on physical cipher machines. These attacks would often be aided by machines specially built to speed the attacks—like the famous electromechanical “bombes” designed by the British codebreaker Alan Turing, and some of the world’s first computers, monstrosities of wires and vacuum tubes that occupied entire rooms—but not necessarily. It was still possible at this point to defeat a machine with mere pencil and paper.

There was one other cipher machine that William studied briefly: Enigma, invented by a young German engineer in 1918 and available at that time on the open market. It looked a bit like a typewriter.

Until 1930, almost all codebreaking for the U.S. government’s planetary war against smuggling was handled by these two tired and perpetually overworked women, Elizebeth and her clerk, but that year Elizebeth decided she’d had enough and wrote a seven-page memo to coast guard commanders, proposing that they create a “central unit” for codebreaking.

By the end of 1932, when Americans elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt to his first term as president, Elizebeth’s

Thanks to powerful brainstorms from Frank Rowlett, the M-134 eventually evolved into the SIGABA, an Egyptian Sphinx of a cipher machine with fifteen rotors and an ingenious mechanism that Rowlett called a “stepping maze.” Up to four rotors might turn at the same time, with a single key press, and the rotors could be inserted in reverse direction. The army and navy distributed 10,060 SIGABA machines across every theater of the Second World War. President Roosevelt used SIGABAs to communicate from his Hyde Park home and when he traveled on the presidential train. The SIGABA was like an American Enigma machine or Purple machine, only inviolate.

The Friedmans weren’t necessarily doing this to document the history of American intelligence and tell a renegade story about its birth, although this would be the ultimate, magnificent result. Rather, the Friedmans built an archive because that’s what the best intelligence professionals do. They become librarians.

This reduced the number of possibilities for the new key, allowing the codebreakers to write a punch-card program that sorted the ciphertexts and aligned them in proper depth. Now the codebreakers could solve the plaintexts as usual and work backward toward the wiring.