Military cryptanalysts – Prelude

Header picture: Senator Joseph McCarthy maps  subversives in 1950 America. courtesy Colorado State University Archives.

previous posts:


Wilfrid had acquired the manuscript by 1912.

In 1914, Hime published his claimed decryption of the  ‘gunpowder cipher’ from  Roger Bacon’s De secretis..

By 1917, in New York,  Wilfrid was touting his own “Bacon ciphertext” as having value for the American War department.

If he hoped in that way to get a high price for his manuscript, Wilfrid’s plan back-fired. His comments (and comments misinterpreted) alarmed some of his acquaintance and brought upon Wilfrid and his circle the attention of the American Bureau of Investigation (the BOI, which would become the FBI in 1935).   By 1917 there was a BOI file on Wilfrid, and it describes him as:

“An Austrian or a Russian Pole (Jew) & and pro-German & an anti-British naturalized British subject & a pretty slick article”

That file was not closed until 1920 by which time Wilfrid and various associates and acquaintances had been questioned.

It is not surprising, then, that by 1921 Wilfrid was concentrating on a different pitch, omitting any mention of military uses or of gunpowder ciphers in his talk, in that year, to the College of Physician of Philadelphia …  but it was a little late to change tack.

William Friedman in 1917
detail from a photograph in files held by the George C. Marshall Foundation

Already, a geneticist named William Friedman, who would be promoted through the Signals corps to become a cryptanalyst for the War Department in 1930, was curious about Wilfrid’s supposed ‘ciphertext’.  Though initially rebuffed by Wilfrid and his wife, Friedman attained the rank of Colonel and strong connections with military intelligence during the second world war, and by 1944 – before demobilisation and amid the rising ‘McCarthyist‘ atmosphere –  Colonel Friedman was able to acquire a full photostat copy of the manuscript and, eventually,  access to private correspondence and research notes generated within the Voynich family’s circle of friends and correspondents.

Friedman’s only interest in the manuscript lay in breaking the cipher which he supposed to inform the written part of the text. The investigations conducted by himself, his chosen assistants, and other members of the National Security Agency would have little impact on the study until 1978, when Mary d’Imperio summarised their (ultimately failed) efforts to ‘crack the text’.  Among the few who knew it before 2009, that book was already elevated to the status of a sort of ‘Voynich Gospel’ but its impact became ubiquitous after 2009, when it was put online as a pdf.

That event was communicated to Nick Pelling, who advertised it through a post headed. ‘d’Imperio’s “Elegant Enigma” now a downloadable pdf!‘, ciphermysteries, (March 22nd., 2009).

Since then, d’Imperio’s small book has informed every account given of the manuscript – from wiki articles to published volumes, blog- and forum-discussions and upon the basis of its text, innumerable theories, still-current, depend.

Thus, forty years after its publication, and more than half a century since Friedman’s first group began their work,  d’Imperio’s summary of their efforts is fundamental reference for the majority of Voynicheros.   Any revisionist daring to engage a root-and-branch re-evaluation of its worth for our ability to understand the manuscript must expect to run the gauntlet.

I’ll look at some of the cryptanalysts’ errors in coming posts.

  • [pdf] Mary d’Imperio, The Voynich Manuscript: an elegant Enigma, NSA. The original file, in a cleaned-up copy, was later made available. [pdf]
  • [pdf] Mary d’Imperio, ‘An Application of PTAH to the Voynich Manuscript (U)‘. Originally classified ‘Top Secret’ the paper was also released as a pdf in 2009 – minus a number of excised passages.  The illustration below is slightly edited, to make a more compact image.


William Friedman:

According to a publication by the National Security Agency, Friedman retired in 1955 “after thirty-five years of service with U.S. cryptologic activities”.

  • [pdf] ‘Friedman Legacy’, Sources in Cryptologic History, Number 3. National Security Agency.  3rd. printing, 2006.  (The pdf may be slow to load).

There, his duties are listed as:

  1. Director, Department of Ciphers, Riverbank Laboratories,1919-1920;
  2. Cryptographer, Office of the Chief Signal Officer (OCSigO), Washington, D.C., 1921;
  3. Chief Cryptographer, U.S. Signal Corps, 1922-1929;
  4. Cryptanalyst, War Department, 1930-1942;
  5. Director, Communications Research, Signal Intelligence Service, later Army Security Agency, 1942-1947;
  6. Chief, Communications Research Section, Army Security Agency, 1947-1949;
  7. Cryptologic Consultant, Army Security Agency, 1949;
  8. Research Consultant, Armed Forces Security Agency, 1949-1951;
  9. Research Consultant, National Security Agency, 1951-1954;
  10. Special Assistant to the Director, NSA, 1954-1955 (retirement);
  11. Member, NSA Scientific Advisory Board, 1954-1969;
  12. Special Consultant, National Security Agency, 1955-1969.
postscript 1: [Jan 5th., 2019].  After WW II, Friedman sought permission from the Army (NSA) to claim patent over unspecified ‘inventions’ for the Signals Corps which the need for secrecy had prevented being patented earlier.  The question went as high as the Army’s Judge Advocate General, whose request for advice from the NSA  was met by Col.Marcey’s asserting (8th. Feb 1953) that “‘from 1933-1942, Mr.(sic) Friedman was a civilian.”.   The document was posted at the Internet Archive.

John Matthews Manly

Playing a central, if quiet, role in the earlier events had been John Matthews Manly, a medievalist and a cryptographer, a friend to Newbold, and a scholar interested in the Voynich manuscript. He had been a member of MI-B (sometimes seen as MI-8) during World War I and had defended Wilfrid to the BOI (see MacKinnon, above). In 1931, shortly after Manly  published a paper about the Voynich manuscript in Speculum, a series of letters passed between Friedman and himself. for details of which see:-

  • David Kahn, The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet (1996).  Manly-Friedman correspondance for 1931 – entries numbered 361 and 362 in Khan’s ‘Notes to Text’ .

Manly died in 1940; Wilfrid had died a decade before.

  • John Matthews Manly, ‘Roger Bacon and the Voynich MS’, Speculum Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jul., 1931), pp. 345-391.
  • John Dooley and Elizabeth Anne King, ‘John Matthews Manly: The Collier’s Articles’, Cryptologia, Vol. 38 No.1 (January 2014) pp. 77-88. doi: 10.1080/01611194.2013.797049.
[postscript 2. Jan 5th., 2019] – I am grateful to a correspondent who refers to a book in the George C. Marshall Research Library, whose margins and flyleaves were filled with  William Friedman’s own comments and criticisms – written in ink.  On p. 39, Friedman disputes Yardley’s praise for  Manly’s ability as a cryptographer at MIB.   The same volume  has – a little ironically – a Mayan-design image as bookplate.  (see above, right).

and see


Rising hysteria – McCarthyism

In 1938, while Friedman worked as a cryptographer in the War Department,  the HUAC (House of UnAmerican Activites) was established “to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of having Fascist or Communist ties”.

According to d’Imperio, the ‘first Friedman group’ worked on the Voynich ‘ciphertext’ manuscript between 1944-1946, while Friedman held the post of Director, Communications Research, Signal Intelligence Service, (later Army Security Agency).

Julius Rosenberg, 1951.

From the end of the 1940s, a latent xenophobia  had blossomed in America into ‘the second red scare’ and by the 1950s public expression was now common of sentiments similar to those reflected in the earlier BOI file on Wilfrid. Any foreign-born person – and a Jew of even the second or third generation –  was at risk of being targeted as ‘un-American’ –  something increasingly  identified with ‘Communist leanings’. Adding to  public actions by the HUAC and by McCarthy’s followers at this time were those of the  FBI ‘combating the  enemies within’. President Roosevelt gave the FBI a sweeping mandate to investigate fascism and communism in the United States, and to this end Hoover increased surveillance of those suspected, not excluding the use of  wiretapping.

It is, therefore, important to realise that when Brigadier John Tiltman‘s help was enlisted by Friedman in 1951, and Tiltman began to repair certain omissions in the earlier efforts – such as  actively seeking specialists’ opinions about the imagery –  Friedman had been thirty years in service to the US government and Senator McCarthy was the height of his public influence.  1951 was also the year  the Rosenburgs were condemned for ‘conspiracy to commit espionage”. Both man and wife were executed in 1953.

This temper of the times does much to explain why (for example) Mrs. Voynich now acquiesced to Friedman’s renewed demands.  Though a private person and not a Jew she had lived for a time in Russia and openly supported  revolutionary causes, though perhaps only until 1898. The BOI file of 1917 makes  clear that she was a better-known figure than her husband.

It also helps explain why  Erwin Panofsky should consent to reply to Friedman’s interogatory of 1954.

Neither Panofsky nor anyone else could predict, at the peak of the McCarthy era, that “only about hundred” academics would actually be dismissed from their posts, and those on the grounds of having held membership in the Communist party.  The ‘witch-hunt’ was in progress and Panofsky could not have been unware  that in the course of pursuing an ‘anti-Communist’ witch-hunt against Jewish actors, writers and film-makers, the first director of HUAC had invoked the so-called ‘Sedition Act’ of 1918 – one which expanded the  anti-Espionage Act, permitting classification of any foreign-born person – even if a naturalised American – as a ‘non-citizen.’ Panofsky had come to the US as an adult, a refugee from Nazi Germany. He had seen such things happen before.

On the number of academics dismissed, see Hooke’s hostile review of Ellen Schrecker’s  No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities:

  • Sidney Hook,  ‘McCarthy and American Universities’, Minerva, Vol. 25, No. 3 (September 1987), pp. 331-348.

Hook’s own book was severely criticised.

  • [pdf] Mark deWolfe Howe, (review) ‘Heresy, yes – Conspiracy, no by Sidney Hook.. (1953)’, Yale Law Journal, Volume 63 (1953), Issue 1 pp.132-137.

More recent studies:

  • Melvin Rader, False Witness (re-publication with afterword by Leonard Shroeter), 1997.
    In the summer of 1948, with Cold War tensions rising, a young state legislator from Spokane, Washington, named Albert Canwell set out to combat the “communist menace” through a state version of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. University of Washington professor Melvin Rader was a victim of the Canwell Committee’s rush to judgment, but he fought back. False Witness tells of his struggle to clear his name. It is a testament of personal courage in the face of mass hysteria and a cautionary example of how basic freedoms can rapidly erode when the powers of the state are allowed to serve a rigid ideological agenda.


  • David R. Holmes, McCarthyism and Academic Freedom : Stalking the Academic Communist: Intellectual Freedom and the Firing of Alex Novikoff, (University Press of New England: 1989 and 1990)
  • Holmes’ book received a long review by Russell Jacob in the New York Times, (April 09, 1989).


Next post: Military cryptanalysts and Panofsky at Princeton.