Thursday, November 12, 2009

Poe's role in World War II

What does World War II have to do with Edgar Allan Poe? Well, that's easy: Poe helped win the war.

Even if you're a big Poe fan, you might not have heard of William F. Friedman, who died on November 12, 1969 (his headstone at Arlington National Cemetery reads "knowledge is power"). Friedman was one of Poe's many admirers. Born in 1891, Friedman was very young when introduced to Poe's short story "The Gold-Bug." Fascinated by the story's plot device of secret writing, Friedman was inspired to study cryptography and codes. As an adult, he wrote papers on Poe and cryptography, and often analyzed literature (Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, etc.) for coded messages. He eventually came to be known as one of America's greatest code-breakers.

During World War II, Japan was using a formidable form of code known as PURPLE. It was Friedman who went to work on deciphering this difficult, machine-made code. After months (and months) of studying, Friedman and his team were able to build a replica of Japan's PURPLE machine — without ever having seen the original. He named his machine MAGIC. The work was so intense he had a nervous breakdown after its completion. Nevertheless, Friedman and his team had succeeded, and now the American military had cracked Japan's code.

Years later, Friedman became the chief cryptologist for the National Security Agency and was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. And he owes it all to "The Gold-Bug" and Edgar Poe.


Matthew Pearl said...

I didn't know that, thanks for sharing it, Rob! I assume there have been some interesting biographies of him, but the Poe connection would be a terrific focus for one--maybe a joint biography of both men.

Rob Velella said...

I think Friedman is discussed a bit in Daniel Stashower's book on Marie Roget (The Beautiful Cigar Girl), but most of this information I got here is from a book called The Cryptographic Imagination by Shawn Rosenheim.

Kristen M. said...

This is a really interesting story!