Documentaries Reveal a Curious Life and a Brilliant Mind

William Friedman was one of the more colorful and intellectually gifted figures involved in Allied efforts to win World War II. As an American cryptographer he helped break enemy top secret codes, including the Japanese Purple code, which helped the Allies achieve a strategic advantage during the conflict.

He and his wife Elizebeth were two of the leading code breakers of the 20th century.  Their papers reside in the Friedman collection at the Marshall Foundation.

To celebrate the Friedmans and their work, the Marshall Foundation has produced four short documentary videos that feature the life of William Frederick Friedman (1891-1969), who is considered by experts to be the greatest American cryptologist of all time.

The videos include interviews with Bill Sherman, Ph.D., professor of renaissance studies, University of York; Rose Mary Sheldon, Ph.D., professor of history at Virginia Military Institute, and Elizabeth Smoot, senior historian at the Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency.

In the “Portrait of William F. Friedman,” the three scholars discuss the Friedman collection as well as his contributions to code making and code breaking. The collection contains correspondence, government files, personal investigations on codes and ciphers of ancient cultures, personal materials, newspaper clippings, and journals.

“This is someone who had a direct effect on the winning and losing of the war,” said Prof. Sherman, describing the contributions of Friedman to World War II. “This is somebody who created a vocabulary, who stabilized a science, who invented new ways to approach the way in which secret meanings work,” he explained.

“There is something about his brain that allowed him to look at code and see plain text,” added Prof. Sheldon.

When not breaking code or thinking about breaking code, Friedman was often engaged in extracurricular pursuits that still fascinate. For instance he and Elizebeth studied claims that Shakespeare’s works contained hidden ciphers that discredit his authorship. Their study disproved all claims that the works contain ciphers. It was condensed and published as The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined for which they received the Folger Shakespeare Literary Prize.

In addition to the short video that describes the Shakespeare ciphers study, a second looks at Friedman’s playful “Knowledge is Power” photograph. The group of 75 individuals photographed, arranged in three rows, spell out by their orientation to the camera and to each other the Francis Bacon phrase “knowledge is power” using the biliteral cipher developed by Bacon himself. It was the perfect ruse except for one tiny piece: Friedman ran out of people so he had no letter “r” to end the string. “It was a classic. What can you say, he was a witty man,” said Elizabeth Smoot.

The subject of the final short video is Friedman’s annotated copy of Herbert Yardley’s American Black Chamber. Published in 1931, the book described current code breaking practices, predating a loosely conceived National Security Agency, and the controversy nearly 100 years ago surrounding eavesdropping following World War I.

The videos can be viewed below and on the Marshall Foundation’s YouTube channel.