Herbert O. Yardley: A Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail

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“I must confess to considerable distaste for Y. Frankly, I didn’t like him at all. He acted like a wooden Indian.” [Fagone 104] William Friedman‘s aversion to fellow cryptologist Herbert Yardley was sincere, yet his choice of descriptor is odd. “Wooden Indian” are not be the words that would come to my mind. “Rabelaisian, outgoing, superficial, free and easy with the details of a good story” were the ones that came to Yardley biographer David Kahn. [Kahn 1967, 369]  In fact, there was much to admire in Herbert Yardley and much to like. Still, there was that not insignificant part to deplore, which had nothing at all to do with being a wooden Indian.

Let’s start with the admirable.

Herbert Osborn Yardley was born into an Indiana Quaker family in 1889. (Coincidentally, Friedman’s wife, Elizebeth Smith, was also raised a Hoosier and a Friend, though beginning three years later.) He was an avid reader and a strong student. He impressed both classmates and teachers as “the smartest boy in the country,” “very brilliant,” “a genius.” [Kahn 2004, 2]. At thirteen, after his mother died, Yardley applied his smarts to poker, which became a lifelong passion and a periodic source of income. At seventeen, he focused his analytical brain on telegraphy. He excelled there, too.

A job as government telegrapher allowed Herbert to escape small town Indiana, and also to make a favorable marriage. The couple set up home in northeast DC in 1914. Off hours, Yardley advanced his education taking correspondence courses in American and English literature through the University of Chicago. Even on the job, he was a sponge for knowledge. His colleagues’ stories of international communications intrigues piqued his curiosity–and his ambition, too. “I knew that I had the answer to my eager young mind which was searching for a purpose in life. I would devote my life to cryptography. Perhaps I too…could open the secrets of the capitals of the world. I now began a methodical plan to prepare myself.” [Yardley 20]

Yardley had no internet, but he did have the Library of Congress close at hand. He discovered there was little in the way of published work on cryptology. After working through Mauborgne‘s “Military Cryptography,” Hitt‘s Manual for the Solution of Military Ciphers, and even Poe’s “The Gold-Bug,” Yardley devised his own course of study, including the solving of enciphered telegrams coming in over the wire at work. Yardley was shocked the night he solved a cryptogram from Colonel House to President Wilson. How could these two most important of men be using such an elementary cipher system? His main course of study, though, was the American diplomatic code itself. After almost two years of dedicated work, he produced a pamphlet he called “Solution of American Diplomatic Codes,” which he promptly plopped on his boss’s desk. That caught the department’s attention. Yardley had a knack for turning heads and drawing attention, an odd thing for a man in an otherwise clandestine business.

He organized and ran the War Department’s first intelligence unit, MI-8. He did the same for the State Department’s first peacetime intelligence gathering unit after the war, which he dubbed the Black Chamber. His staff’s reading of Japanese diplomatic correspondence preceding and during the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 allowed American negotiators to get the most out of their bargaining. It was Yardley’s greatest coup. He and his staff were treated to a well-deserved Holiday party and large Christmas bonuses. But the Cipher Bureau, as it might more properly be called, never achieved a comparable success in its lifetime.

That life came to an abrupt end in 1929 with the incoming Hoover administration. Newly sworn-in Secretary of State Henry Stimson famously pronounced, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” [Kahn 98] The Black Chamber was shuttered and Yardley was out of a job. (The War Department, Army and Navy, kept its units operating.) Yardley turned down some opportunities that might have proved productive. He was turned down by some who might have benefitted from his expertise. A year into the Depression, his suits threadbare and his family insufficiently provided for, Yardley did what any self-respecting fallen celebrity would do today. He sold his story.

And he was confident it was a good story. But he also knew he wasn’t a writer, so friends pointed him to a literary agent named Bye who,  it was said, “could make anyone write.” Bye led Yardley to a deal with Bobbs-Merrill of Indianapolis (Back to his Hoosier roots!) and gave him the encouragement to persevere in the project. “I don’t believe you realize what a slave driver you are,” Yardley told him, affectionately. “In any case, George, it must mean something to you to pick up a person from the street and by your genius for encouragement and criticism inveigle this person to produce a book within a few weeks.” [Yardley xx-xxi]

In the same letter, Yardley had written, “I utterly detested the job of writing what had seemed to me one of America’s greatest episodes. All that I had done in life had been done well. …But I knew nothing about writing. And, George, it seemed to me that I had a thrilling story to tell. You cannot know what it means to sit before a typewriter with a tremendous story with no training, no craftsmanship to tell it. I was desperate.” To be thrown from the top of one profession to flounder as a tyro in another was “humiliating,” he said. He described staring at the page, “without words to express [him]self.” [Yardley xix, xx]

He protested too much. Or, rather, he was spinning a yarn about spinning yarns. Herbert O. Yardley was a born storyteller.

I read The American Black Chamber on the heels of a biography of Joseph Rochefort. Rochefort’s cryptological work I dare say had farther reaching consequences than Yardley’s. He helped win the Battle of Midway. Yet, other than the salt water evaporator deception, there was very little cryptology I could sink my teeth into. The decryption involved numbers of messages too large for a biography to encompass, with mathematical reasoning too layered to comprehend. Even the cryptanalysts at Station Hypo on Oahu relied on the invisible workings of IBM tabulating machines, churning through punch cards in a search for patterns that they might then interpret. Traffic analysis, the meat-and-potatoes of their work while cipher system JN-25b remained mostly unsolved, was comprehensible but hardly the stuff of cryptologic thunderclaps.

Then I read Yardley’s American Black Chamber, and I was transported to a world of real-life proto-James Bond intrigue. More cloak-and-dagger than basement brain trust; more craftsmen cryptology than industrialized intelligence complex. The bulk of Yardley’s exploits, tellingly, come from World War I, though his work, including post-war peace negotiations, lasted barely a year. No IBM tabulator, PURPLE encryptor, or brute force number-crunching. Instead, there was an invisible ink arms race, complete with German mole, and two spies whose exposure and capture Yardley recounts in full-length chapters: the alluring–and elusive–Madame de Victorica and the pernicious Pablo Waberski. Perhaps most memorable is the drinking bout Yardley enters into with a “bewitchingly” attractive young woman who had revealed a “strange inquisitiveness” into his affairs. He managed to stay (relatively) sober longer than his rival and avoided yielding secrets to her. [Yardley 328-329]

But the book stands tall in the literature of cryptology for its detailed explication of actual cryptograms solved by his bureau: the 5-digit codes of German radio intercepts to Mexico, the 10-letter gobbledygook that led, when deciphered, to the arrest of Pablo Waberski, and, pièce-de-résistance, the 10-letter cipher groups of the Japanese diplomatic code. It also abounds with pithy insights into cryptology for readers who had no idea there even was such an endeavor. They are no less illuminating for today’s lay readers. [Yardley 120, 273, 347, 203, 365]

“To excel, [the cryptographer] not only needs years of experience but great originality and imagination of a particular type. We call it ‘cipher brains’.”
“In my opinion, it may be easier for a cryptographer to learn Japanese than for a Japanese student to learn cryptography.” [Yardley taught his readers that it was not necessary to understand a language to decipher messages in it, merely to know its structures.]
When a cryptogram is “completely solved, it is utterly impossible to have anything but the correct solution.”
“…there is no such thing as an indecipherable code or cipher constructed along conventional lines.”
The only indecipherable cipher is one in which there are no repetitions to conceal.”

Images of original documents abound in The American Black Chamber, all printed on glossy photographic paper. They could have but one source: Yardley walking out the door with armfuls of documents. One editor who had steered clear of the project, summed up the endeavor: “In a sense the whole thing was illegal.” [Kahn 106] Yardley asked, disingenuously, if the cryptologic practice were indeed so ungentlemanly, why should it not be publicly aired? And Bobbs-Merrill’s lawyer argued that the government had obtained the information through “improper methods” and the Black Chamber had been a “left-handed appendage of the State Department which was not regularly organized and recognized.” So where was the liability?

In fact, the court agreed. Amazingly–from our perspective–Yardley had broken no law. (Legislators swiftly enacted the so-called Yardley law to put the kibosh on future security breaches.) The court of public opinion was more mixed. The book sold well and garnered positive reviews: “The author has told his story more than well…”; “Yardley does tell rattling good mystery stories.” [Kahn 117, 122] But insiders knew he had played loose with the facts and stretched the truth when it worked to his benefit. One of his oldest cryptologic colleagues, Charles Mendelsohn, called attention to his immodest tone. (“No wonder the Navy Department Cipher Bureau was secretive. They didn’t have anything to reveal.” [Yardley 204]) Another, John Manly, was less restrained: Yardley “has invented conversations, changed details, and made revelations I do not think he ought to have made.” [Kahn 128]

With all the relevant sources at his disposal, biographer David Kahn identifies the factual errors in American Black Chamber, especially those surrounding the mysterious Madame de Victoria. Yet he also acknowledges that Yardley acknowledged his own use of “bunk” and “hooey.” “To write saleable stuff,” he wrote, “one must dramatise. Things don’t happen in dramatic fashion. There is therefore nothing to do but either dramatise or not write at all.” [Kahn 116-117] He was a savvier writer than he let on in his letter to Mr. Bye.

William Friedman spoke for many in the intelligence community when he prophesied, in 1931, “the great harm that [Yardley] has done our country will not become fully apparent for many years to come.” [Kahn 136] Surely he had Japan in mind. Indeed American Black Chamber created a firestorm in the empire across the Pacific. After all, its centerpiece was the Chamber’s cracking of Japanese diplomatic code and its use of decrypts to American advantage at the Washington Naval Conference. The Japanese didn’t relish being made fools of–though they might have indulged a smidgen of masochistic pleasure in snatching up so many copies of Yardley’s book in translation. Almost four times more were sold in Japan than in the United States.

At the end of his study of Yardley’s life, David Kahn makes clear that the American Black Chamber did not set back the American cryptology in the build-up to war with Japan and probably even helped it. Its publication did not cause Japan to upgrade its cryptographic systems. This was already in process at the time. Nor did it lead other countries to do so. Rolling out new codes takes much time and effort, not to mention risks. Point taken.

Yet, the stir Yardley’s book created in Japan was not without effect. The humiliation it engendered lengthened the string of grievances Japanese militarists could exploit in pushing their bellicose program. As Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, Admiral Nimitz’s chief intelligence officer, judged it, “The real cost of Yardley’s escapade was not just that it caused the moderate Japanese government to lose face but that he had revealed very precisely how we had broken Tokyo’s secret cables.” [Emphases mine] Layton, who was living in Japan at the time, was in a position to see how “the furor over Yardley’s exploits had increased Japanese xenophobia.” [Layton 41-42] All actions have consequences that ripple beyond their immediate effects. In the case of Yardley’s spectacular action, the ripples approached full-blown waves. But there were many more than Yardley’s on that troubled sea.

Yardley’s actions were not decisive, yet his perfidy (as it was seen in the intelligence community) made him persona grata therein. No one would touch him. Except Hollywood, which put him to work as a consultant on Rendezvous, whose Black Chamber-inspired plot moved ever farther from its source as production progressed. The Chinese hired him when they alone–but with foreign aid–battled the Japanese. Then he worked for the Canadians–at least, until the Americans sniffed him out. They put pressure on the British, who put pressure on the Canadians, who had no choice but to drop him.

His skills had become limited in any case. He remained a paper-and-pencil cryptanalyst in a cipher machine age. Frequency analysis, super-imposition, and trial-and-error had not been supplanted. They were still necessary tools for the  cryptanalyst, but they were no longer sufficient. Yardley did not have the mathematical tools that Friedman had. It is doubtful he could have broken Purple, as Friedman did.

Above all, Yardley’s character does not inspire. He comes across today as a bit of a scalawag and, perhaps worse, politically incorrect. A remark from the Paris peace conference hints at his insensitivity, lack of principal: “If the President wasn’t worried about the rape of Montenegro, I couldn’t see why anyone else should lose sleep over it.” A comment from a China colleague evokes an unsympathetic creepiness: “Sex is a major obsession with [Yardley] and his conversation is filled with vulgar and bawdy references to women.” [Kahn 196] Quotations from his own letters are too crude to be repeated here.

Friedman, Rochefort, Manly, and many other cryptologists exuded patriotism, service to country motivating them as much as the thrill of cracking ciphers. Yardley shared the thrill, yet money and fame seemed more important to him than service. That fact is all one needs to understand why he was so resented by peers. He was willing to sell them and their profession out for a buck and some publicity.

However, as always, things are never so simple or straightforward. In the 1930s Friedman criticized Yardley for revealing governmental secrets, but by the 1950s his concerns had moved to the other side of the issue. He feared the growing power of a secretive state. He argued for greater transparency in the NSA‘s intelligence gathering operations. Did his older-and-wiser self acknowledge that he had moved in Yardley’s direction? Had he given up the realist’s faith in secrecy as a necessary means to preserving democratic sovereignty and the freedoms it allows? The answers are, surely, no and no.

Yardley’s book stands today as both “a rattling good” read and an early testament to the inherent tensions of intelligence gathering in a democracy, tensions which have become only more pronounced in recent years. How much secrecy should the government be allowed to conduct intelligence gathering? How much secrecy is too much? How much intelligence is too little? The questions multiply with global terrorism and global digital networks.

Not that Yardley had much stake in resolving these tensions. He wanted to wear pressed suits, smoke expensive cigars, and attract the attention of pretty women and important men.  Herbert O. Yardley thought small. He thought, first and foremost, of himself.


Fagone, Jason. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: a True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.

Kahn, David. The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1967.

Kahn, David. The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail: Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking. New Have: Yale University Press, 2004.

Layton, Rear  Admiral Edwin T. Layton (with Pineau and Costello), And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway–Breaking the Secrets. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985.

Yardley, Herbert O. The American Black Chamber. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrrill Company, 1931.






Fake Views

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Elizebeth Smith, like so many bright, talented women of her era, understood the limitations before her. Her Quaker upbringing nurtured natural intellectual curiosity and independence of mind. But the unyielding horizon around her family’s Indiana farm threatened to swallow her. Over the objections of her father, Elizebeth got herself to college.

What then?

A degree in English literature from Hillsdale College, Michigan, opened up the opportunity to teach Shakespeare to farm boys and girls, but little else. Elizebeth lasted less than a year at her first job. Only by a chance encounter in the Chicago’s Newberry Library did her literary skills lead to a more stimulating opportunity.

William Friedman was not held back by sexism. But as a Jew, born in the Pale of Settlement, whose family had fled the Czar’s pogroms, William faced other obstacles as he came of age in Pittsburgh. Poverty, first of all; the brunt of a rising anti-Semitism, on top of that. William managed to get a scholarship to the Cornell agricultural college to study genetics.

William faced a life of teaching, too, with a possibility of research. An opportunity for the latter arose in the form of a curious want ad posting in the genetics department. A bright, independent-minded young scientist was sought to run a “private research facility in Illinois.” With some trepidation William accepted the position. He would oversee experiments in the breeding of crops and fruit flies for an eccentric Chicago millionaire.

Thus did both Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman wind up at Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois, the brainchild of the inimitable George Fabyan. The experience changed their lives–made their lives–as did their meeting of each other. This even though their mutual endeavor, the decrypting of Baconian cipher in “Shakespearean” texts, was built on a lie–or at least a figment.

Can a life of consequence–nay, two lives of invaluable consequence–be built on a lie, a figment? In this case, they were.

Fabyan had money, lots of it. Unusually, he took his pleasure spending it not on yachts and Tuscan villas, but on the advancement of human knowledge. His personal institute on the prairie, a kind of twentieth century New Harmony, began with the study of acoustics and quickly branched out to include genetics and Baconian ciphers. The latter involved the meticulous examination of the works of “Shakespeare” for hidden messages.

That was Elizebeth’s bailiwick.

The English major worked under the tutelage of Elizabeth Wells Gallup. Squinting ever harder, she struggled to make out small variations in the text’s letter formations. Try as she might, Elizebeth could not reliably make out the a and b forms. Bacon had devised a binary system of enciphering letters from aaaaa=A(0) to babbb=Z(23). (i/j were composed of a single cipher, as were u/v.) This was well known and understood. More controversial were Fabyan’s and Gallup’s claims of a “bilateral” cipher hidden within the Folio script and of Bacon’s authorship of “Shakespeare’s” works.

In 1916, when Elizebeth began work at Riverbank, the indefatigable Mrs. Gallup had been beavering away at the texts for almost two decades. Her first work on the subject, self-importantly titled The Bilateral Cypher of Sir Francis Bacon Discovered in his Works and Deciphered by Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, was published in 1899.  Elizebeth was hired to assist and speed the completion of the work. Too often the apprentice required the master to find the hidden message for her. A replicable science this was not.

William, the breeder of agricultural seeds, was enlisted in the Bacon project because of his skills with a camera. He photographed the texts and enlarged them to aid the decipherment. His role in the project expanded because of his innate knack for solving cryptograms and ciphers. He shared Elizebeth’s doubts about the purpose of the work and her fascination with the process. He also shared more and more of his free time with her, and she with him.

History would have been different for this pair (and for tens of millions more, besides!), if an archduke had not been assassinated in a provincial capital half a world away. As the United States was drawn closer into the European War, her armed forces had need of cryptanalysts. Seeing an opportunity to expand his reach and serve his country at the same time, Fabyan offered his “professionals” at Riverbank for cryptographic work. William and Elizebeth were enlisted.

The pair, now married, might have been among the country’s handful of experts, but there expertise was limited. They read the one available book on the subject and taught themselves the rest–largely on the job. Handed garbled messages to decipher, the pair used frequency analysis, trial and error, and deduction. They lined up the ciphers on top of each other and stared; then shuffled, realigned, and stared again…until a pattern emerged. The pair published eight pamphlets on the budding science of cryptology in just two years.

After the war, the newlyweds were eager to move on from Riverbank. Both agreed that the Bacon project was a chimera. Both settled on a dark judgment of their benefactor, Fabyan, as a petty tyrant. It took a few years, but the couple eventually escaped his grasp.

William and Elizebeth had been a close-knit team, but over the next two decades their career paths diverged. William decrypted for the Army’s Signal Corps and headed up the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) to which it gave birth. (It would eventually grow into the National Security Agency (NSA) in 1952.) He broke the earliest cipher machines and devised one of his own, which, with the help of Frank Rowlett, was remained unbroken throughout the duration of the next world war.

Elizebeth, “more or less known as a military cipher expert,” nevertheless felt she was better known as the wife of William Friedman. In short, she took on the role of housewife. And yet Prohibition opened up cryptologic opportunities that otherwise only a war provided. She was asked to create and head a small decrypt unit for the Coast Guard, within the Treasury Department, laying bare the incriminating contents of rumrunners’ communications. The end of Prohibition saw her shunted aside for a ladder-climbing man, with a small fraction of her skills, but the coming of war made her services once more indispensable. Her decryption work led to arrests of some of the most sought-after Nazi spies.

Elizebeth said it was “the thrill of your life” to crack open a cipher: “The skeleton of words leap out, and make you jump.” Still, she would have concurred with William when he wrote, early in his career, “The work is so hard and the results so very, very meagre. Sometimes I fear I haven’t got it in me at all.” Of course, William did have the right stuff, yet the strain of unrelenting, intense mental effort for high stakes combined with an apparent predisposition for mental illness took a huge toll. He turned to less taxing pursuits after the war.

Such as writing, a pleasure denied him for more than two decades of cryptanalytic service to his country. He teamed with Elizebeth on a project, another pleasure denied him for as long. Theirs was a historical project that demanded years of archival research. It was written for the general reader interested in a fascinating, little-known moment in the American story. It was written for the scholar of the new science of cryptology, too. Perhaps most of all, it was written for the authors themselves, a kind of personal therapy. The result, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined: An Analysis of Cryptographic Systems Used as Evidence That Some Author Other Than William Shakespeare Wrote the Plays Commonly Attributed to Him, excavated the past at Riverbank and set the record straight on its accomplishments. More important, the process of writing it set the authors free from a burdensome past.

Elizebeth’s biographer Jason Fagone says the pair approached their subject with “ruthless honesty” and, in so doing, produced “a story about the drug of self-delusion and the joy of truth.” While debunking her life’s work, the Friedmans recognized that Mrs. Gallup had ignited in them a lifelong passion for cryptanalysis. Acknowledging Fabyan could be manipulative, self-centered, and controlling, they nevertheless forgave him his faults and credited him with a substantive achievement. He had funded the enterprise that birthed not only their personal careers but also the intelligence gathering culture of an entire nation.

At the end of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, a quartet of fairy tale survivors sings,Witches can be right, giants can be good. // You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good.” Mrs. Gallup was no witch, nor was she right. But the Friedmans decided that she wasn’t exactly wrong either. At six-feet…something, George Fabyan was a it of a giant, but the cryptanalyst husband-and-wife decided he had done some tangible good. The non-duality of Taoism may seem exotic or arcane. In fact, we would see it all around us, if only we knew how to look. In the life of the Friedmans, through the revelations of their book, the blurring complementarity of right and wrong are plain to see. At Riverbank, a pursuit of self-delusion led to the pursuit of truth. At the level of the particular, this meant the truth enciphered within in garbled messages. Generalized, it meant the truth of a science whose laws are as discernible–through arduous experimentation–as those of physics.

A mistake–going to work for a tyrant ensnared in self-delusion–can be the most fruitful choice of a lifetime. The recognition of same can be the most therapeutic act of all.

Sources: Fagone, Jason. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: a True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.

Images: Wikimedia

The Hazards of Cryptology

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David Kahn called it the Yardley Symptom, the compulsion of the cryptologist to chip away at the puzzle throughout his waking moments. He turns the letters over in his mind even as he fries his morning egg, scrubs his evening dishes.

Joe Rochefort called it the “the staring process,” his unscientific-sounding method for codebreaking. Look at the symbols. Line them up in various ways. Write them out in various forms. Stare at them. “Pretty soon you’d notice a pattern.”

Elizebeth Smith Friedman called it “the thrill of your life,” the moment a cipher falls apart in your hands, revealing its secrets. “The skeleton of words leap out, and make you jump.”

I just spent an hour and forty-five minutes, over three different sittings, decrypting a simple substitution cipher. I confess, it did not stay with me during the two hiatuses. Not once, as I showered or snacked or drove the car, did I consider a new possibility for that pair of double-letters or those four different three-letter words. Nor, when at the computer, did I stare stop and stare deeply, though I did examine the patterns, over and over, trying this letter and that in a vain attempt to gain a foothold. When I did eventually crack the wall, the bricks fell quickly. I can’t say it was the thrill of my life, but it was satisfying, not in the way that puts a smile on your face and a skip in your step, but rather that allows you to breathe easier and release the built-up tension in your muscles. My desperation to read Mark Twain’s quip had grown acute, my frustration approaching all-consuming.


I had inferred the double-l’s early on, but there were so many possibilities: -all, -ill, -oll, and -ell. The contraction “till” eluded me. I “knew” (though I was never really sure of anything) that “off” had to start with a vowel. I tried “odd” and “egg.” I must have tried “off” (Didn’t I?), but I never ruled it in as almost surely the best answer. The “o” gave two -o-o–o- words, which, let’s be honest, didn’t look promising. But it was the puzzle piece that first fell to my “stare.” Once I saw “tomorrow” amid those o’s, there was nothing else to do but plug in letter by letter until the message was complete. This took less than sixty seconds.

A mono-alphabetic substitution cipher (MASC) is the simplest cipher to solve. Cryptographers can layer on another substitution (or more?) to make poly-alphabetic encryptions. Fractionating is a particularly devilish way of transposing the letters of numbers in a cipher. When the symbols are shifted to different positions in one or more ways, they produce a transposition cipher. Layer on a second shift, and you get a double transposition cipher. Use an electromechanical machine with rotors that scramble the symbols multiple times in random, non-repeating ways, and you get a cipher that was, in the 1920s, quite possibly unbreakable.

Early in the decade, William Friedman solved the single-rotor Hebern cipher machine single-handedly in six weeks. In the 1930s, it took Friedman’s team of SIS cryptographers (Signal Intelligence Service) several years to crack the Japanese Type A Cipher Machine, code-named Red.  Ditto the upgraded Type B machine, Purple. Elizebeth Friedman’s biographer described the process as “akin to building a watch if you have never seen a watch before, simply by listening to an audio recording of the ticking and clicking of its gears.” Neither the Nazis or the Japanese Imperials cracked Friedman and Rowlett‘s four-rotor SIGABA machine before the end of the war.

The staring, the lining up and relining up, the round-the-clock mental demands for professional cryptographers don’t last an hour-and-three-quarters over two days. The frustration, the thwarting, the not-knowing persist day-in and day-out–sixteen- to twenty-hour days–for months and even years. The pressure builds.

Joe Rochefort said, “If you desire to be a real great cryptanalyst, being a little bit nuts helps.”

William Friedman seconded him, saying it was “not necessary” for a cryptanalyst to be insane, “but it helps.”

This highly cerebral profession took a surprising large physical and mental toll on its earliest practitioners. After cracking the Japanese diplomatic code and deciphering what he claimed were more than five thousand messages before and during the Washington arms control conference of 1921-22, Herbert Yardley was “exhausted to the point of breakdown.” His doctor ordered him to Arizona for several weeks to recoup. Later in the decade, Rochefort developed ulcers from the stress, a condition he lived with for the rest of his life. William Friedman, likely predisposed to mental illness, suffered depression to the point of hospitalization. Elizebeth Friedman chain-smoked and had difficulty keeping her weight.

Notwithstanding the occupational hazards, both Friedmans turned to cryptology in their play. They wrote ciphers to their children and friends. They held cipher parties, the way some hold Super Bowl parties today–with the guests interacting with puzzles and cryptograms rather than with an over-hyped athletic contest on a screen. It would have been fun to be a guest at one of these, with neither the extreme difficulty nor the life-altering stakes approaching those of Friedman’s work–work the Friedmans could not help bringing home in their minds yet could never discuss with each other.

If that is not a recipe for mental stress, I don’t know what is.


Carlson, Elliot. Joe Rocheforte’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2011.

Fagone, Jason. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: a True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.

Kahn, David. The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail: Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

“Reminiscences of Captain Joseph J. Rochefort. U. S. Navy (Retired).” Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute, 1983. Series of tape-recorded interviews in 1969, Redondo Beach, CA, by Commander Etta-Belle Kitchen

Yardley, Herbert O. The American Black Chamber. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrrill Company, 1931.