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Introducing Elizebeth Smith Friedman

Elizebeth Smith Friedman is an American hero whose work is largely unknown to most people. Yet, when we learned about her work as a codebreaker and cryptanalyst, she became the inspiration for The Cryptology Collections. Thankfully, in recent years, people are finally telling her story. Elizebeth is the subject of Jason Fagone’s book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies and her story is the focus of the PBS special, The Codebreaker.

So, who is Elizebeth Smith Friedman?

Elizebeth was one of America’s first cryptanalysts and the first female one. Yet, for all her contributions to the field, her work wasn’t widely recognized during her lifetime. Her work was so highly classified, she was sworn to secrecy and died in 1980 before her work was made public.

Yet, she didn’t start out with the goal of being a codebreaker. Elizebeth graduated from college with a degree in English and began a career in one of the few fields available to women at the time, teaching. (Not-so-fun fact: she had to borrow money from her parents in order to attend college and pay her dad back – with interest! – because he didn’t think educating a daughter was a good investment.) Her career in teaching didn’t last long though. Elizebeth quickly realized she wasn’t passionate about teaching and quit her job.

Next, Elizebeth headed to Chicago to look for work. There, she met Colonel George Fabyan, the eccentric founder of Riverbank Laboratories. Fabyan recruited Elizebeth to Riverbank to work on one of his pet projects: cracking a hidden code in Shakespeare’s manuscripts. He was trying to prove they were actually written by Francis Bacon. This proved to be false, but working at Riverbank was pivotal to Elizebeth’s life. There, she became very good and very passionate at codebreaking. She also met and married her husband, fellow codebreaker William Friedman.

World World I changed the course of Elizebeth’s life.

The Friedmans proved so good at codebreaking that when the US government came to Riverbank looking for someone to decrypt messages intercepted over WWI’s newest technology, the wireless telegraph, Elizebeth and her husband were given the job. This launched a long career of government service for Elizebeth and William that spanned WWI, prohibition and WWII. Together and with the team they helped to build, they decrypted thousands of messages and developed many new tools of codebreaking.

For example, Elizebeth developed a technique called Traffic Analysis. This technique processes signals and information. It figures out not only what a coded message says, who the message is intended for. This process can piece together what an entire organization is doing and helped the Coast Guard break up organized crime rings during Prohibition.

And, what does this have to do with pattern design?

Breaking codes is all about looking for patterns. Previously, people had been focusing on language and linguistics to crack codes. Elizebeth and her husband realized you don’t need to speak a language to break a code. You needed to look for patterns. It was more about statistics and math. They developed a technique called “Solving in Depth” where papers are put on top of each other to help see a pattern.

This focus on pattern was the spark that got us thinking about how textile designers also use pattern to communicate. Furthermore, how do interior designers use pattern in their material selection to communicate in a built environment? No designer picks a pattern at random, they are purposefully choosing the right pattern for the need of the space. One pattern can set a contemporary tone, another a traditional one, and another something playful. Pattern can feel sophisticated or casual, serious or fun.

Patterns left to right: Encode (P1912), Key (P1911)

Photo credit: Kristen Julianna Photography

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Kristin Crane

Kristin Crane has designed jacquard designs for the home furnishing and residential jobber market for many years, with mills in the US and in China. Today, she writes about pattern and design trends for Design Pool from her home in Providence, Rhode Island. When not writing about fabric, she can be found weaving in her home studio or hiking along the Rhode Island coast.


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