February 11th, 2011

an example of making anything signify anything

For much of his long and largely secret career, Colonel William F. Friedman kept a very special photograph under the glass plate that covered his desk. As desks go, this one saw some impressive action. By the time he retired from the National Security Agency in 1955, Friedman had served for more than thirty years as his government’s chief cryptographer, and—as leader of the team that broke the Japanese PURPLE code in World War II, co-inventor of the US Army’s best cipher machine, author of the papers that gave the field its mathematical foundations, and coiner of the very term cryptanalysis—he had arguably become the most important code-breaker in modern history.1

At first glance, the photo looks like a standard-issue keepsake of the kind owned by anyone who has served in the military. Yet Friedman found it so significant that he had a second, larger copy framed for the wall of his study. When he looked at the oblong image, taken in Aurora, Illinois, on a winter’s day in 1918, what did Friedman see? He saw seventy-one officers, soon to be sent to the war in France, for whom he had designed a crash course on the theory and practice of cryptology. He saw his younger self at one end of the mysterious group of black-clad civilians seated in the center; and at the other end he saw the formidable figure of George Fabyan, the director of Riverbank Laboratories in nearby Geneva, where Friedman found not just his cryptographic calling but also his wife Elizebeth (flanked here by two other instructors from Riverbank’s Department of Ciphers). And he saw a coded message, hiding in plain sight. As a note on the back of the larger print explains, the image is a cryptogram in which people stand in for letters; and thanks to Friedman’s careful positioning, they spell out the words “KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.” (Or rather they almost do: for one thing, they were four people short of the number needed to complete the “R.”)

The photograph was an enduring reminder, then, of Friedman’s favorite axiom—and he was so fond of the phrase that some fifty years later he had it inscribed as the epitaph on his tomb in Arlington National Cemetery.2 It captures a formative moment in a life spent looking for more than meets the eye, and it remained Friedman’s most cherished example of how, using the art and science of codes, it was possible to make anything signify anything.

More at cabinetmagazine via 3qd.


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