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Women in American Cryptology

Creating the Legacy

View the Women in American Cryptology Honorees

Although the number of women involved in cryptology has always been lower than the number of men, they have not been completely absent from the field either. Women have always been involved in America's cryptologic history. Some have reached the higher ranks of management and a few have been considered the expert in their field.

Cryptologic pioneers, such as Elizebeth Friedman and Agnes Driscoll, are well known to those who study cryptology. Were it not for their early involvement, the women of today may not have been able to reach their current numbers or status. But not every woman, or their organizations, has made it into the history books. Thousands of lesser-known women cryptologists have also played a role in creating the legacy women enjoy today. Their achievements, and in some cases their escapades, furthered the progress of women in cryptology. Women's involvement was sometimes sporadic, but significant.

The Women in Cryptologic History exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum highlights the contributions of twenty-four women who have helped create cryptologic history. The display begins with a member of the Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution who used her laundry as a secret code. Women spies from the Civil War also used codes and ciphers to aid those fighting for the causes they believed in. But it wasn't until the twentieth century that women began to work full-time in cryptology. During WWI several women considered to be cryptologic pioneers began their careers, as did some women few people today would know. During WWII thousands of women joined the military or worked as civilians for the military as cryptanalysts, intercept operators, technicians, machinists and every other position available in cryptology. Many of those women chose to stay in the field after the war, providing breakthroughs and contributions throughout the Cold War. Eventually, women rose to the highest ranks of management and today continue to support, develop, and build the cryptologic legacy of tomorrow.


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Agnes Meyer Driscoll

2000 Hall of Honor Inductee

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Agnes Meyer Driscoll's work as a navy cryptanalyst who broke a multitude of Japanese naval systems, as well as a developer of early machine systems, marks her as one of the true "originals" in American cryptology. She was born in 1889, and, in 1911, she received an A.B. degree from Ohio State University, majoring in mathematics, physics, foreign languages, and music. From her earliest days as a college student, Agnes Meyer pursued technical and scientific studies atypical for a woman of the times. After graduation, she moved to Amarillo, Texas, where she was director of music at a military academy, and, later, chair of the mathematics department at the local high school.

In June 1918, about one year after America entered World War I, Agnes Meyer enlisted in the United States Navy. She was recruited at the highest possible rank of chief yeoman and was assigned to the Code and Signal section of the Director of Naval Communications. Except for a two-year hiatus, when she worked for a private firm, Agnes Meyer Driscoll (she married in 1924) would remain a leading cryptanalyst for the U.S. Navy until 1949.

Her efforts were not limited to manual systems; she was involved also in the emerging machine technology of the time, which was being applied both to making and breaking ciphers. In her first days in the Code and Signal section, she co-developed one of the U.S. Navy's cipher machines, the "CM." In 1923, Miss Meyer left the navy and joined the fledgling Hebern Electric Code Company as technical advisor. Although Hebern's company ultimately failed, its work in rotor technology would affect machine cryptography for years to come. She returned to the navy in 1924.

In her thirty-year career, Mrs. Driscoll broke Japanese Navy manual codes -- the Red Book Code in the 1920s, the Blue Book Code in 1930, and, in 1940, she made critical inroads into JN-25, the Japanese fleet's operational code, which the U.S. Navy exploited after the attack on Pearl Harbor for the rest of the Pacific War. In early 1935, Mrs. Driscoll led the attack on the Japanese M-1 cipher machine (also known to the U.S. as the ORANGE machine), used to encrypt the messages of Japanese naval attaches around the world. At the same time, Agnes sponsored the introduction of early machine support for cryptanalysis against Japanese naval code systems.

Early in World War II, Mrs. Driscoll was engaged in the U.S. Navy's effort against the German naval Enigma machine, although this work was superceded by the U.S.-U.K. cryptologic exchanges in 1942-43.

Mrs. Driscoll was part of the navy contingent that joined the new national cryptologic agencies, first the Armed Forces Security Agency in 1949 and then the National Security Agency in 1952. Mrs. Driscoll died in 1971 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.