William F. Friedman, considered to be the greatest cryptologist of all time, is most well known for leading the team of cryptologists that broke the Japanese diplomatic code known as “PURPLE” prior to U.S. entry into World War II. In addition to the official code work that Freidman performed for the government, he devoted much of his leisure time to studying codes and ciphers of all kinds.
The story of William Friedman’s work on two of his extracurricular pursuits, the Voynich Manuscript, and the Shakespeare authorship controversy, will be featured in the upcoming Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition Decoding the Renaissance: 500 Years of Codes and Ciphers. The exhibition examines the development of codes and ciphers during the Renaissance and their widespread use during this period. It opens November 11, 2014, and continues through February 26, 2015.
The exhibition provides a rare opportunity for the public to see objects and documents from the Marshall Foundation’s Friedman Collection that are not usually displayed publicly. Visitors can see the original charts and tables that Friedman developed in his attempts to decipher the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th century manuscript containing unusual illustrations and undeciphered text that remains unbroken to this day. An early computer printout of the manuscript’s letter frequencies will also be on display. The Friedman’s Christmas card (above), which wonderfully illustrates a contemporary application of the Renaissance-era grille cipher, is sure to be a favorite among visitors.
Also included in the exhibition is a photograph (right) of a group of U.S. Army cryptographers trained by William F. Friedman before being sent overseas to serve in World War I. Visitors who look closely at the photograph will discover that Friedman arranged the individuals in the group to either face the camera or look away from it. The photograph, utilizing the principles of the biliteral cipher developed by Sir Francis Bacon, contains the secret message, “knowledge is power.” Watch a short video about the photograph. The exhibition will also include the Medal for Merit and Civilian Service Medal that Friedman earned during his illustrious career in government service.
Individuals who are unable to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library to see the exhibition or are interested in learning more about William F. Friedman can find more information on the Marshall Foundation website, where they can access digitized books, documents, and photographs from the William F. Friedman Papers as well as audio and video about Friedman and his work.
Pictures of the exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library: