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Codebreaking, Ciphers, and Cryptology at the George C. Marshall Museum

Posted By Rick Drake and Annie Maddox, Wednesday, May 13, 2015

At the George C. Marshall Museum, the Legacy Series is an initiative to perpetuate Marshall’s legacy in unique and exciting ways. These events, programs, and presentations are centered on key themes, events, or episodes from his life and the World Wars. On April 23rd, the George C. Marshall Foundation opened its Codebreaking sequence and began the Legacy Series to make General Marshall’s career and achievements more popularly accessible.


The Foundation received the official papers of one of the foremost codebreakers of the 20th century during the April 23rd event. The afternoon’s series of presentations from scholars and experts from the Foundation, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) discussed William Friedman, who is considered to be the leading codebreaking pioneer in the United States in the 20th century. 


As head codebreaker for the U.S. War Department, Friedman led a team that broke the Japanese diplomatic code known as PURPLE in 1940 during World War II. General Marshall later described the intelligence provided by Friedman and his cryptologists as “contributing greatly to the victory and tremendously to the saving of American lives…and…the early termination of the war.” Col. Friedman donated his personal papers to the Marshall Foundation where they have resided since 1969.


With the addition of Friedman’s official papers in digital form, the Foundation now possesses the most comprehensive set of Friedman materials as part of one of the most important private collections of cryptologic material worldwide. “Our Friedman collections put us at the epicenter of cryptology research,” said Dr. Rob Havers, Foundation President.


In the evening of the 23rd, the kickoff continued when the head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the curator of the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition on "Decoding the Renaissance," Dr. Bill Sherman, spoke about all things codebreaking. His talk, titled "From the Cipher Disk to the Enigma Machine: 500 Years of Cryptography," was followed by a reception.


Dr. Sherman’s talk featured far-reaching connections to the Renaissance and Shakespeare, as well as an introduction to pioneering codebreakers William and Elizebeth Friedman. “I’m going to try and convince you that Shakespeare helped us win World War II,” he said to the chuckling audience. “To connect Shakespeare with World War II codebreaking, we might enlist Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Alan Turing in ‘The Imitation Game’ and who will play ‘Hamlet’ in an upcoming production in London.”


The use of codes in writing, he said, can be traced back more than 4,000 years to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The first efforts to develop a system for writing in code appeared in 855 AD in an Arab book that contained several cipher alphabets. The process of written code appeared in western civilization during the Middle Ages and was often used by royalty to secretly converse with their military or other members of the royal family.


In the 1500s, Sir Francis Bacon was intrigued by ciphers and even created a simple “biliteral code,” he said, that could easily codify plain text by using two different letters or symbols. “The incredibly powerful thing [Bacon] came up with…is that this code can signify anything by using anything. Anything that can be broken in two can be an alphabet. It can be colors, pluses and minuses, apples and oranges or even a minor key and major key in music,” he said.


Read more about this story in the News-Virginian.  


A new exhibition on the Friedmans and Codebreaking, “Partners in Code: William and Elizebeth Friedman,” will be open through July 4th. Additionally, upcoming events include a display of the German Enigma machine and a short talk by Foundation archivist Jeffrey Kozak as well as a showing of “The Imitation Game” on May 20 and a portrayal of Thomas Jefferson Beale and his three codes for treasure that’s supposedly buried in Virginia on June 20.  See the Foundation's website for details.   


About the George C. Marshall Museum

At the museum, travel through World War I and World War II and see this time in history from General Marshall’s perspective. Follow his life from his childhood at Uniontown, Pennsylvania and at VMI in Lexington. The museum has exhibits from his time in both World Wars as well as his 1953 Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to restoring the European economy through the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Legacy Series, with 12 sequences planned to put Marshall’s legacy into the context of world events, will benefit Foundation members, children and families in the community, as well as scholars and researchers, historians and history buffs, and museum visitors of all ages. Learn more


Tags:  George C. Marshall  History  Lexington  Museums  VA  Virginia Association of Museums 

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