Career Journeys

Elizebeth Smith grew up in a Quaker family of nine children who could trace their American roots to 1682.  The unusual spelling of her name was her mother’s desire that she never be called Eliza.  Elizebeth defied her father’s wishes and went to college, but he loaned her the money (with interest) instead of paying for college.  She paid her father back by working as a seamstress.  Elizebeth graduated from college with a degree in English Literature and many minors.

While in college, Elizebeth became interested in cryptography to help resolve the mystery of whether Francis Bacon wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare.  When she graduated, she went to work at Riverbank Laboratories.  Riverbank was one of the first organizations in America to study cryptography.  The founder, George Fabyan, was interested in doing research on whether Shakespeare was the true author of his works.  It was at Riverbank that Elizebeth met William Friedman who would become her husband.  They became a team.

When it became inevitable that the U.S. would enter World War I, the Friedmans convinced Fabyan to establish a code breaking team to intercept enemy messages.  Elizebeth and her husband decided to join the military rather than to tolerate Fabyan’s constant spying on them.  William was sent to France, but Elizebeth was not allowed to go to a war zone.

In the middle 1920s, Elizebeth was hired by the U.S. Treasury Department to decode messages of organized crime used primarily to communicate about shipments of alcohol during Prohibition.  She was so successful that she was given personal body guards when her life was threatened.

When World War II began, Elizebeth was called upon to break Nazi codes.  She did this work in complete secrecy out of fear for her life.  She was instrumental in defeating an effort by Germany to bring South American countries into the war effort against the allies.

When World War II was over, Elizebeth and her husband retired and returned to their original pursuit of who wrote the works of Shakespeare.  They were able to definitively refute the claim that Francis Bacon was the true author.

A life’s journey can take many different turns.  Who would imagine that a study of English literature would lead to becoming a pioneer in cryptography?  The pursuit of who wrote the works of Shakespeare gave Elizebeth the skills at becoming a code breaker.  Could someone with a different skill set (e.g. mathematics) have become the nation’s top code breaker?  How essential was the initial effort at breaking the “Shakespeare code?”  Those are questions that we can only speculate about, but we do know that many of our greatest innovations come from unlikely sources.

Careers can take on journeys that are completely unexpected.  Degrees really don’t matter that much.  It’s how our minds work and how we capitalize on opportunities.

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                “When cryptography is outlawed, bayl bhgynjf jvyy unir cevinpl.” – John Perry Barlow (poet and cyberlibertarian)

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