Birth of cryptology

  • Prosperity
  • 1915

George Fabyan was a classic entrepreneurial philanthropist—curious, quirky, full of passionate interests, deeply respectful of inventive thinking, distrustful of conventional wisdom and bureaucracy. Fabyan was a great believer in science, and with proceeds from his textile business he set up one of America’s early private research labs, Riverbank Laboratories, on his estate near Chicago. Becoming interested in genetics and plant growth, he brought in a promising Cornell student to study, among other things, the effects of moonlight on wheat maturation. William Friedman went on the payroll in 1915.

Fabyan was also fascinated by secret messages and cryptography, and soon Friedman was as well. Before long, Friedman and his wife were running the Riverbank Lab Department of Codes and Ciphers, and publishing a series of papers that established much of the mathematical basis for cryptanalysis. When World War I broke out, the U.S. military asked Riverbank Laboratories to train its personnel in the use of codes. Friedman became the principal instructor, and eventually an officer in the Army’s cryptography unit. Throughout the war, George Fabyan’s private lab was the center for all U.S. military code-making and -breaking.

William Friedman eventually ran signals intelligence for the Army. He headed the group that famously broke the Japanese diplomatic codes—one of the great technical breakthroughs of World War II. He helped create for America the most secure cipher machine used in the Second World War. The organization Friedman established evolved into today’s National Security Agency, the preeminent coding, surveillance, and information-security entity. The young geneticist who George Fabyan recruited into the world of ciphers is today described by the NSA as “the father of American cryptology.”