The following is an excerpt from Liza Mundy | October 10, 2017 | Slate.com |
This essay is adapted from Code Girls, by Liza Mundy, published by Hachette Books. On Tuesday, Oct. 17, Mundy and contemporary technologists will discuss her book and the role of women in technology at a Future Tense happy hour event in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Many people cheered earlier this year when Yale University decided to strip the name of slavery advocate John C. Calhoun off one of its residential colleges and rename that piece of elite real estate Hopper College, after naval Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper. The storied computer pioneer also has a conference named after her, the Grace Hopper Celebration, which has grown into one of the biggest annual gatherings for women in computing and tech. Now that Hopper is finally getting her due—as are the black American mathematicians of Hidden Figures—other schools may look for important hidden female figures whose names deserve to be chiseled into dorms or academic buildings.
If so, they would do well to consider another early Navy woman and cybersecurity pioneer, the brilliant Agnes Meyer Driscoll. Her groundbreaking cryptanalytic work during and before World War II saved countless lives and immeasurably advanced the field of cryptanalysis, or codebreaking, and with it the science of encryption and cybersecurity. It is no exaggeration to say that she was a key, unsung reason why the U.S. won the Battle of Midway—one of the most famous sea battles of all time—and eventually, the Pacific War.
Agnes Meyer was a brilliant young teacher who would become one of the great cryptanalysts of all time. Born in 1889 in Illinois, Meyer studied mathematics, music, physics, and foreign languages. She was heading up the math department at Amarillo High School in Texas, when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. She enlisted at age 28, one of the first women to do so, starting out as a stenographer but soon was assigned to the Navy’s postal and censorship office. The Navy transferred her to its code and signal section at a time when the unit’s purpose was protecting naval communications—encoding America’s own messages. Agnes Meyer got her start making codes, which is the best possible training for learning how to break them.
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