Agnes Meyer Driscoll: women in cryptanalysis

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

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

Her work approach was innovative by mixing manual decryption techniques and early and emerging automatic machine systems. Moreover, her technical studies on cipher rotors led to a substantial advancement 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 in 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, she graduated from Ohio State University in 1911, 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 is 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 also involved in the emerging machine technology of the time, which was being applied to making and breaking ciphers.

In 1923, Miss Meyer temporarily left the navy for two years to work for a private firm. The Hebern Electric Code Company hired her as a technical advisor. Her work in rotor technology during 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, 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 the US military referred to it. The M-1 had the task to encrypt Japanese naval attaches’ diplomatic communications around the world.

At the same time, Driscoll supported 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 an effort to violate the German naval Enigma machine, although the U.S.-U.K. cryptologic exchanges superseded this work 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 in 1952.

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

She died in 1971.

Her cryptanalytical work brought his homeland invaluable contributions in solving the military codes of WW2.

Her activity also brought key advancements in cryptography and cryptology.