Friday, April 29, 2005

Yardley, Pioneering Cryptographer

His name was Herbert Osborne Yardley, and he founded one of the American government’s very most top-secret agencies: the Black Chamber. It functioned during the 1920s, deciphering coded messages of interest to those charged with national security. This was a period of heightening edginess in Washington regarding the military “rising sun” -- Japan.

Yardley, an Indiana Hoosier, began his government career at 23, in 1912. That year, he was hired by the State Department as a code clerk. Intrigued by ciphers and curious as to his own ability to crack them, he one day undertook to translate a coded message that came across his desk for President Woodrow Wilson. He did it -- and soon was elevated high above his clerk’s post. International spies and codes proliferated during World War I, and by the time he was 30, Yardley had been made the nation’s chief cryptographer. He carefully studied codes and code breaking in Europe. Based on his unique expertise, he established the so-called Black Chamber in 1919.

During its first year, the agency decoded more than 800 telegrams pertaining to Japan alone. Over the next decade, until its dismantling in 1929, the Black Chamber decoded some 45,000 secret messages in dozens of languages.

Code-breaking machines and now computers replaced the early skull work of Yardley and his government colleagues. But he is respectfully remembered, and students of cryptography still refer to Yardley’s books on the subject.


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