The Woman Who Smashed Codes

The Woman Who Smashed Codes

A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies

Book - 2017
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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.
Publisher: New York, NY :, Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow,, [2017]
Edition: First edition
Copyright Date: ©2017
ISBN: 9780062430489
Branch Call Number: 652.8 F9112f 2017
Characteristics: xvi, 444 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm


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ontherideau Oct 17, 2018

Remarkable story of a remarkable woman and her husband.

I am sure the book is well researched but the story line is disjointed and there are too many bifurcations into the lives of supporting characters. Stick with the life of Elizabeth and her accomplishments. Also the technical detail into code breaking was boring and distracting.

Apr 15, 2018

While her husband cracked "unbreakable" cypher machines peddled by fly by night businessmen & reverse engineering Japan's Purple, Elizebeth hired by Coast guard for Treasury department consisted of prohibition bureau, Narcotics bureau, coast guard, the IRS & the secret service to track guns, drugs, alcohol & counterfeit money to crack organized crime & freedom fighter codes. Treasury department belatedly asked her to train a larger unit to lighten her load & sign of respect. Working from home not a new idea. Her job was warmup compared to going after Nazi spy rings in North & South America. I'm not surprised bull in the China shop gloryhound Mr. Hoover stole her glory after his bureau's misadventures or that he indirectly created CIA by snubbing the British asking for help.
Certainly explained why her official file petered off in 1940 & author forced to teased out from other files & sources.
I could see why she retreated to help her husband to recover from mental breakdown.
Layperson author gently explained types of codes to the layperson.
Biography of underappreciated ,yet modest person highly recommended.

Feb 26, 2018

This fast-paced book explores the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman who pioneered and worked in the Cryptanalytic Unit of the United States Coast Guard for almost forty years. Her husband, William Friedman, considered her an equal in the solving of codes and ciphers during World War I, the gangster era of the 1920s and 1930s, and World War II. The Friedmans are now considered the founders of the National Security Agency (NSA). They would be very disappointed in how secretive the agency has become based on their belief that as much information as possible should be available to the public. Although Fagone's work focuses on her professional life, glimpses of Elizebeth's personal life shine throughout the book. Let's just say that women balancing home and work life is not a modern phenomenon.

Feb 19, 2018

Excellent, excellent. Easy to read (as the author says, you don't need to understand code to appreciate what Elizebeth did--yes, correct spelling of her name) and hard to put down. I didn't find it at all confusing as another reviewer says. Fagone did a superb job of research and revealing what this mostly unsung heroine did. From the start, he says it's a love story, and it is. But it's more than Elizebeth's love for her husband (equally brilliant at code breaking); it's also her love of this work. Highly recommended.

Feb 12, 2018

Reads more like a history book than a novel. Techniques on codebreaking given and how that career takes your life. Many details of other people are also included. Not much a story line that flows. Jumps back and forth from present to past, which sometimes confuses the reader. I think it could have been better written and would be more enjoyable from her point of view instead of including the tidbits of so many of the others.

Jan 20, 2018

Fagone tells quite a story about Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William who work on the front lines of defense unraveling codes during the two World Wars and lay the groundwork for the field of cryptology.

Reads like a thriller. Amazing people. Glad author researched and told this mostly hidden story. Amazing.

Nov 11, 2017

What an eye opener. So little has been published about our skilled cryptanalysts, mostly because they were never allowed to share any information about their roles in code breaking, but also because Hoover claimed all of their successes as having been done by the FBI.

The book centers around Elizabeth Smith Friedman, along with her husband William, a pioneer in the field, who's career started in WW I, through the Prohibition era, then greatly expanded in WW II. She broke the Enigma machine, possibly ahead of Britain's Bletchley Park..You'll also learn about Germany's South American plans and the spies they had hidden there.

The coverage of WW II is missing a bit, because it took Fagone two years to discover the FBI cover up. I'd like to know more and hope the upcoming book, "Code Girls" will fill in some of the details.

Highly recommended.


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