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The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies
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The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies

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4.21  ·  Rating details ·  4,074 Ratings  ·  745 Reviews
Joining the ranks of Hidden Figures and In the Garden of Beasts, the incredible true story of the greatest codebreaking duo that ever lived, an American woman and her husband who invented the modern science of cryptology together and used it to confront the evils of their time, solving puzzles that unmasked Nazi spies and helped win World War II

In 1916, at the height of Wo
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Hardcover, 444 pages
Published September 26th 2017 by Dey Street Books
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Nettie In my estimation this book holds to the facts quite well. If you do a bit of research on Elizebeth Smith and Riverbank you can see how closely the…moreIn my estimation this book holds to the facts quite well. If you do a bit of research on Elizebeth Smith and Riverbank you can see how closely the author has stayed with the facts and not strayed far afield. So interesting that I would really want to visit the museum at Riverbank to learn more. Happy reading!(less)
Nettie Describe Riverbank and the work being done there?
Who was Elizebeth Smith and how did she come to be at Riverbank?
How did she meet her husband, what…more
Describe Riverbank and the work being done there?
Who was Elizebeth Smith and how did she come to be at Riverbank?
How did she meet her husband, what drew them together?

Hope this helps.(less)

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Charlene
Possibly one of the best books I have ever read. Even better than Hidden Figures. Thank you Jason Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman into my life. When I first picked up this title, I thought maybe Fagone found a woman who was impressive, but not necessarily one of the most amazing women to ever live, to make the subject of his new book. It seemed possible that perhaps he was overselling her accomplishments and underselling the recognition she received in the history books, all in an effort ...more
Jean
I recently read “Code Girls” by Liza Mundy. This book “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” makes a nice addition or compliment to the storyline. Elizabeth Smith Friedman is the subject of this book. Mundy also mentioned Elizabeth’s husband, William F. Friedman, and deemed them to be an important team of cryptologists. William F. Friedman was famous in World War Two for breaking Purple, the Japanese cipher machine.

Elizabeth Smith was a college educated teacher who was recruited by George Fabyan to work
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Patrick Brown
Oct 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This was fantastic, and I'm not surprised. Fagone is a great writer (check out his previous book Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America), and here he has great subject matter to work with. This book tells the story of Elizabeth Friedman, a pioneer in the field of cryptanalysis (that's codebreaking to us civilians), and one of the great unsung heroes of the 20th Century. Friedman's story has all the stuff you want in a great history -- wingbat theo ...more
Ollivier
Oct 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cryptography
Anyone interested in the History of cryptography knows William F. Friedman, known as the man who broke Purple the Japanese cipher machine and many things. But who did know that his wife, née Elizebeth Smith, was his equal in cryptographic skills? She created a Coast Guard cryptographic team, broke an Enigma without any help from Bletchley Park, helped expose many Prohibition-era gangs and Nazi spy networks in South America during WWII and worked in tandem with William during WWI. She is as much ...more
Marlene
Oct 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Originally published at Reading Reality

Once upon a time in the West, a wealthy and charismatic man whisked a young woman off to a luxurious life on his expansive estate.

And even though that sentence is true, this is not that kind of story. Although it is a love story. And a war story. And a spy story.

The man was George Fabyan, a wealthy businessman who had created a kind of scientific and technical utopia on his estate at Riverbank, outside of Geneva Illinois. The town of Geneva still exists, an
...more
Mal Warwick
Nov 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
When Richard Nixon asked Chou En-Lai in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier famously said, "It's too early to tell." That terse response is generally understood to illustrate the Chinese ability to take the long view of history. But it might be more accurate to regard it as reflecting the constraints on those who write history. Historians can only work with available records: there is no history without documentary evidence. And sometimes decades, even centuries p ...more
Rick
Sep 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Immediately added to my favorites shelf. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes will be compared with Hidden Figures, and that's fair, to a point. Both books have at their core a story of remarkable scientific/mathematic achievement, overlooked because of gender, largely forgotten (until now) as others took credit. But it is so much more, so rich in its account of not only an extraordinary woman, but the time in which she lived, two World Wars and her central role
...more
Tina Othberg
Dec 09, 2017 rated it it was ok
This book had the potential to be awesome (looking at other reviews!). However, the writing style of this journalist-turned-author comes off like a recitation of facts. Elizebeth is a fascinating woman that history ignored, her accomplishments and life man-splained away. As much as I appreciated learning about this dynamic figure, I found the writing dry and bogged down with too much detail.
Barb in Maryland
Mar 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Well done biography of one of the most interesting women of the 20th century.
Though I do have a quibble with the blurb GR is using for this book, which describes Elizebeth Smith as a 'brilliant Shakespeare expert'. Ermmmm, not quite. Brilliant? Probably. Shakespeare expert? No. Rather, she was a well educated young woman whose casual interest in Shakespeare led her to be in the right place at the right time to catch the interest of eccentric millionaire George Fabyan. He happened to need an assi
...more
L F
Nov 08, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Frequently slow, but the topic of a woman’s skills in solving mysteries involving codes or cryptic messages is fascinating.
Nicole R
I literally just finished listening to this and I want to rush out and tell everyone I know about how freaking amazing Elizebeth Smith Friedman was. I want everyone to read this book and just marvel at how she was a superhero of her day, and yet few of us have heard of her. Because, you know, woman in the first half of the 1900s.

There are no words to sum up the feats of code-breaking that this woman—this PERSON—achieved. She broke codes during WWI, using her pen and paper to make other counties
...more
SueKich
Dec 17, 2017 rated it liked it
The Word Smith.

Elizebeth (with three ‘e’s) Smith became one of the most renowned codebreakers in history by a quirk of serendipitous fate. As a young woman brought up in a Quaker household, she wished to extend her horizons and at the age of 23 she went to Chicago in search of work. The quest was unsuccessful – but on the last day of her trip, on a whim, Elizebeth decided to visit the Newberry Library where a rare copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio was on display. The librarian noted the visitor’
...more
writegeist
Feb 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
In high school, I was a big WWII history fan, normally on the European and African theaters (Battle of the Bulge, Afrika Corps). I thought I knew a lot about what was going on... Well, I didn't. Not by a long-shot. Fagone's book reveals yet another level to all the actions, both military and civilian, behind the scenes of WWI, Prohibition, and WWII. The Friedman's almost single-handedly created the field of cryptoanalysis (with nods, of course, to the work of Alan Turing and his associates), hel ...more
Vicki
Sep 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
There is so much to think about in this book. Cryptography, women in the workforce, the start of the NSA, World War 1, World War 2, privacy, work, marriage, partnership, humanity, what it means to leave behind a legacy, the dignity of intellectual work, motherhood - and so, so much more.

It's a dense read, but today, as we grapple with what it means to be human and to entrust our privacy to machines, and in an era of intense debate about the role of women in technology, it's an important read th
...more
Joyce
This is one of a number of interesting titles that have come out this year, all celebrating women in unusual roles who made important contributions but were overlooked in their male dominated fields. For fans of spy fiction with codes and codebreaking, this is a particularly interesting one. It chronicles the life of Elizabeth Smith Friedman, a Shakespeare scholar who worked for the eccentric George Fabyan (known to those of us in the Chicago area) but made her name, along with that of her husba ...more
Katarina Szulenyiova
“You can never get sick of too much knowledge.” Such a simple, yet elegant, premise of a book.

“The Woman who smashed codes,” a story filled to brim with an insatiable desire for knowledge, revolves, tellingly, around Elizebeth Friedman, who with her husband form a highly unexpected couple of the first and the best cryptanalysts in the US history. Their shared belief that “knowledge is power” keeps returning as the main fil-rouge of this literary adventure, and lays a groundwork for the spectacul
...more
Abigail
Aug 12, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, listened-to
I was a fan of this woman before I finished the foreword! I loved the beginning when it explained her life and how she began her life as a cryptanalysis (codebreaker), but toward the end it became less and less about spies and more about the government. That's when I began to nod off. It was still an extremely interesting read! I can't believe all this stuff is real! Elizabeth and her husband won the war for America! And they couldn't tell anyone about it, not even each other.
Angie
Jul 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I don't remember another time when a non-fiction book kept me on the edge of my seat, neglecting the rest of life in the breathless anticipation of what comes next in this fascinating tale. Elizebeth Friedman was an amazing woman, on par with Grace Hopper or Marie Curie, and Fagone tells her story with great skill. He is able to convey the excitement that Friedman must have felt on learning to break codes, watching the messages take shape, reading the minds of unseen adversaries.

Elizebeth Fried
...more
Katelyn
Oct 06, 2017 rated it liked it
I loved learning about Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her foundational work with cryptoanalysis in the US before and during WWII. This was a great previously hidden history of a woman in a unique position for her time. Fagone cleverly comes up with great descriptions of Elizebeth's code breaking. She smashes, tears apart, etc codes. He keeps the description fresh despite writing about her deciphering many times.

Overall I enjoyed this book but found it a little overlong. Despite it feeling a little
...more
Bonny
Jan 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I would bet that only a few people know about cryptography, and fewer still are familiar with the names and work of those who developed the science, like Turing, Shannon, and Friedman. Even if you have heard of William Friedman as one of the founders of the National Security Agency, you most likely have never heard of his wife Elizebeth and her work. Thanks to Jason Fagone, we can finally read her fascinating story in The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

She was first hired by eccentric George Fabyan to
...more
Jay
May 01, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook
I found “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” to be very entertaining. My enjoyment keyed off of two topics, local history and the discussion of codebreaking. Roughly the first third of the book introduces a true character in history, Colonel Fabyan, and his compound in Geneva, Illinois. I have lived less than 10 miles from what’s left of his compound for more than 20 years and had never heard this story, and it was quite unexpected given the area. Fabyan had his own kind of “Wonderland Ranch”, with dia ...more
Judy Lesley
Jan 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
My oh my, what an amazing story this book has to tell. Puzzle solving is something I find myself doing on a small scale on a daily basis so this revelation of the work in cryptanalysis by Elizebeth Smith Friedman was positively fascinating. Thanks to the passage of time documents which tell this story have now been declassified and it is possible to learn the debt we owe to Elizebeth Friedman for her work with the coast guard and their solution of the Enigma code and William Friedman, her husban ...more
Helen
I loved this book and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys stories of unsung heroes finally getting their due. This is the fascinating story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who with her husband, William Friedman, was pioneer cryptologist.
She learned cryptology when an eccentric millionaire hired her to help with a project trying to prove Francis Bacon wrote William Shakespeare's plays. That meant when World War I came around, she was among the few people who knew anything about decoding messa
...more
Feisty Harriet
Mar 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Cryptology, the study and science of code breaking, got it's start in the US (and Europe) by a husband-wife team who were GENIUSES at making and breaking codes. However, it was Elizabeth and not her husband who truly did the brunt of code-breaking to take down enormous Nazi spy rings during WWII. Elizabeth and William (Billy) started working for the government solving codes during WWI, but it wasn't until after the war that Elizabeth came into her own, creating the first code-breaking unit with ...more
Correen
Jan 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A story that begs to be told, Elizabeth Friedman was a strong and adaptable woman whose story has been hidden far to long. She was a major actor in the Allied win in WWII. We are much aware of British code breaking but little aware of the work done in the U.S. especially of this unsung hero. Elizabeth and her husband worked together for many years and then in separate projects. He became known to other code breakers but Elizabeth was neither paid well or adequately recognized. For those who knew ...more
Heather
Apr 22, 2018 rated it liked it
This is a book that deserves praise, but I could only give it 3 stars because of my own faults: I am bored by war stories, and really couldn’t care less about codes and cryptology. I read it anyway because it was our book club selection this month, but unfortunately my experience was similar to when I read “Unbroken” a few years back. I slogged through it, all the while feeling guilty for not having more eclectic tastes.

That being said, I am glad this story was told and the book has been receive
...more
Elizabeth Buckner
May 15, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2018
I thought this book was quite interesting, well written, a true story. Code breaking is not really something I'd ever thought of before, especially involving the World Wars and how things might have been different if Elizebeth and William Friedman had not done what they did! Disclaimer: there is some language.
Erica
May 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
A great historical read about a couple I had never really heard of, but who had major influence on code breaking, cryptology and the shadow war during WWII. I thought it was fascinating how they were so good at breaking codes and ciphers without ever really being trained, they were almost completely self taught. There was some profanity sprinkled throughout, and few of their dairy entries and letters to each other were a bit personal and lewd.
Carolyn Porter
Nov 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The best book that I read in 2017! I liked it so much — and felt it was such an important, inspiring story — that I bought additional copies to give as Christmas gifts.
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Play Book Tag: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone—5 stars + ♥ 13 26 Aug 17, 2018 01:31PM  
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I've written about science, sports, and culture for Wired, GQ, Men's Journal, Esquire, NewYorker.com, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, Philadelphia, and the 2011 edition of The Best American Sports Writing. A few years ago, I wrote a book called "Horsemen of the Esophagus," about competitive eating and the American dream. For the last three years, I've been working on my next book ...more
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