Agnes Meyer Driscoll: women in cryptanalysis

Agnes Meyer Driscoll: women in cryptanalysis

Agnes Meyer Driscoll was a leading cryptanalyst working for American defense agencies between WW1 and the early years of the Cold War.

She started off her career in the US Navy, by enlisting in Code and Signal Section of the Director of Naval Communications.

The approach to her work was innovative, by mixing manual decryption techniques and early and emerging automatic machine systems. Her technical studies on cipher rotors, moreover, led to a substantial advancements in American cryptography.

Regarding her cryptanalytical work, Driscoll’s contributions allowed the US to break a wide range of diplomatic correspondence.

Also, she was a specialist of Japanese naval codes.

The breaking of these codes made the US Navy won several key naval battles in WW2 in the Pacific such as the Midway Islands Battle of 1942.

The first years of Agnes Meyer Driscoll

Born in 1889, in 1911 she graduated from Ohio State University, majoring in mathematics, physics, foreign languages. As a college student, Agnes Meyer pursued technical and scientific studies atypical for a woman of the time.

In June 1918, about one year after America entered World War I, Agnes Meyer enlisted in the United States Navy. The Navy assigned here at the Code and Signal section of the Director of Naval Communications.

In her first days in the Code and Signal section, she co-developed one of the U.S. Navy’s cipher machines, the “CM”.

The Innovative Approach

During her work she was involved also in the emerging machine technology of the time, which was being applied both to making and breaking ciphers.

In 1923, Miss Meyer temporarely left the navy for two years to work for a private firm. The Hebern Electric Code Company hired her as technical advisor. Her work in rotor technology during the her time at the Hebern would affect machine cryptography for years to come.

Codebreaking

As cryptanalyst, Mrs. Driscoll broke several Japanese Navy manual ciphers. These were the Red Book Code in the 1920s and the Blue Book Code in 1930.

In 1940, then, she made critical advancements in breaking the JN-25, the Japanese fleet’s operational code.

The U.S. Navy would later exploit her work after the attack on Pearl Harbor for the rest of the Pacific War. Particularly, her contributions proved to be a key element of the American victory of the Battle of the Midway Islands in 1942.

Mrs. Driscoll’s activity also included machine breaking.

In early 1935, Meyer Driscoll led the attack against the Japanese M-1 cipher machine, “The ORANGE” as US military referred to it. The M-1 had task to encrypt the  diplomatic communications of Japanese naval attaches around the world.

At the same time, Driscoll supported the introduction of early machine support for cryptanalysis against Japanese naval code systems.

She also attempted to break German cipher machines, too. Early in World War II, Mrs. Driscoll made effort to violate the German naval Enigma machine, although this work was superseded by the U.S.-U.K. cryptologic exchanges in 1942-43.

Conclusion: Agnes Meyer Driscoll

After WW2 Driscoll continued to work with US Defense agencies.

Mrs. Driscoll  joined the new national cryptologic agencies. These were the Armed Forces Security Agency in 1949. Then she served in the National Security Agency since 1952.

She unsuccessfully attempted to break the so-called “Venona code” a  Vernam-based cipher. Soviet spies employed it to transfer the secrets of the atomic bomb from the US.

She died in 1971.

Her cryptanalytical work brough his homeland a unvaluable contributions in solving the military codes of WW2.

Her activity also brought key advancements in cryptography and cryptology.

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