Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Challenge: Total Madness

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[Image courtesy of The Nikki Sin.]

One of the first reality TV shows to make an impact was MTV’s The Real World, which debuted back in 1992. A show wherein seven strangers would live together in a house and have their lives and interactions taped, it is credited with helping launch the modern reality TV genre.

In the decades since, one of the show’s longest-lasting spin-offs has been The Challenge, a competition show where former Real World alums and other reality show figures compete against each other in physical and mental games, both individually and as teams. There is also a social element to the show, as players form alliances, scheme against other competitors, and often vote out players at regular intervals.

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[Image courtesy of TV Guide.]

As you might expect, puzzles have worked their way into The Challenge from time to time. Memory games, riddles, anagrams, sliding tile puzzles, and variations on the Tower of Hanoi puzzle have all appeared in past seasons.

The most recent iteration of the show, The Challenge: Total Madness, pits the players against each other in the hopes of making it to the finals and winning a big cash prize.

In last week’s episode, the players arrived at a quarry, where a puzzly surprise awaited them: Decode and Detonate.

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The players each had a sign bearing a sequence of symbols. Their job was to decode the sequence and display the correct decryption below the sign, using letter and number cards found in a box below the sign.

But in order to decode the sign, they would have to acquire the key to the puzzle.

Well, keys.

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Yes, the key indicating which symbols represented which letters / numbers was split between two boards a fair distance apart. With two puzzle keys to run to — and each key only bearing some of the symbols on your sign — you’re going to have to run to both puzzle keys at some point. And that doesn’t include any running back to your sign you have to do in order to decode the letters you can remember.

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Once you’ve decoded your sign (and it’s been confirmed as correct by the judges), you have to run to a detonator and push down the plunger, blowing up one of the two trucks perched on the bluff high above. Out of 26 competitors, only 2 can push a detonator and win the game.

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The players, as you might expect, had different strategies going into today’s challenge.

Swaggy C, a rookie, bragged about relying on his photographic memory. CT, a veteran, immediately created a memorization tool for himself, associating each character with an image or something familiar so he could better remember it.

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Jordan hoped to remember four or five symbols on his first run, figuring he could make up time because of his endurance. Fessy, meanwhile, kept it simpler, hoping to remember three symbols, because he thought trying to remember too many would cause him to jumble them up and get confused.

Wes opted to group the symbols in sets of four, hoping to keep each smaller bundle of characters in his brain more efficiently, and then make up time during the runs between stations.

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After a fair amount of running, Swaggy C and CT were neck and neck. Swaggy C was the first to call for a check — asking the judges to confirm his solution — but it was incorrect. So much for that photographic memory of his.

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CT called for a check and was correct, becoming the first competitor to run to one of the detonators and blow up a truck, earning him the win and power going forward in the game.

When the truck exploded, all of the competitors, no matter how far away, now knew that someone had completed the puzzle. Only one spot left.

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You might think people would pair up to divide and conquer, hitting both puzzle keys at once and reconvening to see how many letters they could cobble together as a team.

No one opted to pair up. But one player DID consult another player’s work.

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Bayleigh took advantage of the fact that everyone was using the same code language. One of the other competitors, Jenny, had the same C-shaped coded letter Bayleigh had on her sign, and had placed a decoded letter beneath it. Bayleigh took a chance that Jenny was right about the decryption, and used the information to complete her sign’s coded sequence.

When she asked for a check, it was correct. TRICKY. Not exactly in the spirit of the challenge, but effective nonetheless.

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Bayleigh then sprinted to the second detonator and blew up the second truck, joining CT in victory and bringing the day’s challenge to a close.

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One of the cleverest things about the way The Challenge uses puzzles is that they incorporate physical obstacles as well.

For instance, solving a puzzle on a hot day, and making the players run all over. As you get tired, you’re not in peak puzzle-solving condition, and it makes memorization and recall harder. Even if you have a (supposedly) photographic memory under normal circumstances, stressing the body always makes mental tasks more taxing.

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Although this wasn’t the most difficult puzzle-based event I’ve seen in previous editions of The Challenge, it was a nice variation and certainly kept the competitors on their toes. I look forward to seeing if there are more puzzly obstacles awaiting the two teams as the competition continues.


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Did a Typo Help Defeat the Enigma Code and Win World War II?

During World War II, the Enigma code was one of the most daunting weapons in the German arsenal. Cracking the code would be the key to intercepting crucial information and outmaneuvering the Nazi war machine. In fact, unraveling the secrets of Enigma was so important that both England and the United States poured massive resources into building their own codebreaking operations, Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall, respectively.

Loads of fascinating information about the day-to-day operations of Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall have emerged over the last decade or so, and one of the most peculiar anecdotes to make the rounds recently claims that a typo is partially responsible for cracking Enigma.

As the story goes, a man named Geoffrey Tandy was recruited by the UK Ministry of Defense to work at Bletchley Park as part of their growing team of cryptography experts. Scholars and professions from all over the country were being enlisted in the war effort, and cryptographers (or cryptogramists) were at the top of the list.

But Tandy wasn’t a cryptogramist. He was a cryptogamist, aka an expert on mosses, algae, and lichen.

Despite the error, Tandy remained at Bletchley Park, and a year or two after his mistaken hiring, his expertise proved invaluable when a German U-boat was sunk and cryptographic documents relating to Enigma were recovered. You see, his experience preserving water-damaged materials and specimens helped salvage the water-logged documents so they could be used to crack the German code.

And thus, a typo helped end World War II.

cryptogam

[Image courtesy of Did You Know Facts.]

It’s a great story. And like many great stories, there’s a hint of truth to it. There’s also a lot of exaggeration to make it a tale for the ages.

It was no fluke that Tandy was recruited for Bletchley Park. In addition to his cryptogamist credentials, he was assistant keeper of botany at the National History Museum of London. His work included managing the voluminous library, working with fragile documents and samples, and a facility with multiple languages.

Those linguistic skills and organizational talents made him a perfect choice for Bletchley Park, since they were recruiting all sorts of experts. Remember that the field of cryptography was in its early stages. You couldn’t just go looking for cryptographers. You had to build them from scratch, as well as the folks who would be support staff for those codebreakers-in-training.

That would be Tandy’s role. He was part of a division known as NS VI, responsible for archiving foreign documents and helping the cryptographers deal with any technical jargon they might encounter, particularly in foreign languages.

tandy

[Image courtesy of the National Museum of Australia.]

So where did the typo idea come from?

Well, it’s entirely possible it came from Tandy. The cryptogram/cryptogam mistake is just the sort of joke that would appeal to linguists and other professorial types, so either another member of the Bletchley Park team or Tandy himself could have downplayed his credentials in tongue-in-cheek fashion with the story of an erroneous typo.

As for the other part of the story — where he saved the documents — there is some debate as to whether that happened. As the story goes, he used his knowledge of preserving documents to save a waterlogged set of cryptographic codes from a sunken U-boat.

[Image courtesy of Military Factory.]

The anecdote as reported usually cites the year 1941, whereas many books about Bletchley Park’s codebreaking efforts reference a U-boat from 1942, U-559, where documents AND a working Enigma machine were recovered.

I believe he DID participate in rescuing/preserving documents from a U-boat because it’s not some great heroic deed, it’s literally part of why he was hired in the first place. The crux of the anecdote is on the wordplay and the faux-fortuitousness of his employment, not on the actual events.

So, in the end, no, a typo didn’t help end World War II. But Geoffrey Tandy certainly did.


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The Tap Code (and a Puzzly Love Story)

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Instead of offering a puzzle for Valentine’s Day, this year I thought I’d do something different and share a story, a wartime puzzly love story for the ages.


Our tale begins in Vietnam on April 4, 1965, when Air Force pilot Carlyle Harris is shot down during a failed bombing run. Over the next eight years, Captain Harris — Smitty to his friends — was a POW in Vietnamese hands.

He would be imprisoned in numerous camps over the years — Briarpatch, “the Zoo,” Son Tay, Dogpatch, and even the infamous Hanoi Hilton — enduring illness, mistreatment, psychological and physical torture, and whatever other horrors his captors could conjure up.

But nothing was more taxing than being separated from his beloved wife Louise. With two daughters to raise, a son on the way, and a husband trapped on the other side of the world, Louise became one of the first POW wives. (Smitty was only the sixth American POW captured by the Vietnamese at that time.)

Louise worked hard not only to care for her family, but to try to contact Smitty and keep his spirits up. She also fought for personal rights, including access to her husband’s pay during his imprisonment, becoming a role model for other POW wives to come.

But what, you might be wondering, makes this a puzzly tale?

The Tap Code.

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A World War II-era form of communication developed by a POW in Germany, the Tap Code was devised to allow communication when verbal commands wouldn’t do. The simple five-by-five matrix allows each letter to be identified by two simple sets of taps. (The lack of a need for dashes made the Tap Code superior to Morse Code for their efforts.)

Smitty taught it to fellow POWs when given the opportunity, and they taught it to others, and soon, the prisoners could communicate by tapping on walls and water pipes, knocking on buckets, or even through the movements of a broom while sweeping. (Naturally, everyone using the Tap Code did so lightly, so as not to alert the guards to their efforts at clandestine communication.)

This wasn’t the only method of communication employed by the POWs. A one-handed code system similar to American Sign Language was also developed. Some used coughing as a signal that they were being moved, while others managed to pass notes, eventually assembling mental lists of all of the POWs in a given camp.

Of course, Morse Code also proved useful. When one POW was placed on television as a Vietnamese propaganda effort, Jeremiah Denton blinked a message in Morse Code for the world to see. His message? T-O-R-T-U-R-E.

These methods, along with the Tap Code, not only kept morale up, but allowed the POWs to keep track of their ranks even when moved between camps/prisons.

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[Image courtesy of PBS.]

It also allowed for covert operations within the camps. An SRO (senior ranking officer) would be chosen for the group, and he could assign tasks to fellow POWs as well as establish rules for newcomers to help them survive the experience.

Key Tap Code abbreviations also emerged:

  • GNST: Good Night, Sleep Tight
  • DLTBBB: Don’t let the bed bugs bite. (A sadly literal wish for the POWs.)
  • GBU: God Bless You.

GBU became shorthand for “you are not alone,” a reassurance that both God and fellow POWs were on your side, watching over you.

But Smitty and his fellow POWs weren’t the only ones using coded messages. Louise was also learning codes in order to both support the war effort and communicate with her husband. She and other POW wives would participate by using the Letter Code:

The long process began when Louise would write a short letter in longhand and send it to the Pentagon. They would rewrite it in code, while at the same time keeping the spirit of what she had written. They would then send the letter back to Louise, and she would rewrite it in longhand on the prescribed form. These then would be mailed to North Vietnam, which didn’t know about the secret strategy. It was a complicated code, and only a select few had been taught how to do it in survival training.

Smitty taught a select few the Letter Code for their own coded messages to send home, but it was hard to tell how many made it out of the camps.

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[Image courtesy of The Daily Journal.]

All through that time, Louise was constantly writing letters, sending packages, and making entreaties on behalf of her husband, reaching out to him in any way possible. Although the Vietnamese combed through every package and seized much of the contents for themselves, some items still slipped through, becoming treasures for Smitty to hold onto. (And yes, the US government managed to slip some info and supplies to the POWs spy-style through these packages, including microfilm, maps, and more.)

Louise’s unflagging efforts and Smitty’s determination were finally rewarded when negotiations between the US and Vietnam bore fruit. Before returning to the United States, Smitty was allowed to speak to Louise on the phone. It had been 2,871 days since his capture.

But that wasn’t the end for the Tap Code — later referred to as the Smitty Harris Tap Code after the successes with it during Vietnam. Even when the POWs were finally returned home, staying in a hotel before going their separate ways, they used the Tap Code all night to communicate with each other. Old habits are hard to break.


Not only is this a story of puzzly innovation and determination, but it’s also an inspiring tale of two people in love who never gave up on seeing each other again.

You can read the full story of Smitty and Louise’s trials and tribulations in Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code That Changed Everything.

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]


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Puzzly Ideas Just in Time for Valentine’s Day!

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Valentine’s Day looms large, and sometimes it’s hard to find that perfect way to express your love for that certain someone… particularly if that certain someone is the puzzly type.

But we’ve got a few suggestions…

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Jigsaw puzzles are the perfect metaphor for relationships, as they require separate pieces working together to complete the picture.

There are necklaces and other pieces of jigsaw-themed jewelry, as well as do-it-yourself jigsaw patterns you can utilize. You could depict anything from a favorite photo to a specific Valentine’s message in the completed image.

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Now, you can always start with something simple, like a subscription to a puzzle service like The Crosswords ClubThe American Values Club Crossword, or The Inkubator. New puzzles every week or every month are a great gift. (Especially the Valentine’s Deluxe Sets for the Penny Dell Crosswords app! *wink*)

If they’re more into mechanical puzzles, our friends at Tavern Puzzles offer several brain teasers that incorporate a heart shape.

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But if you’re looking for something more personalized, why not make a crossword for them yourself?

(Yes, you can also commission a top puzzler to do one for you, but you’d usually want to get the ball rolling on something like that well before Valentine’s Day.)

Now, to be fair, crosswords can be tough and time-intensive to make, so if that feels a little daunting, why not try a Framework puzzle or a crisscross instead? They incorporate the same crossing style, but don’t require you to use every letter.

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It allows you to maintain a terrific word list all about you and your significant other without all the effort of filling in every square crossword-style.

Or you could write the object of your affection a coded love letter! All throughout history, people have employed different tricks and techniques to keep their private messages away from prying eyes, and you could do the same!

Whether it’s a simple letter-shifting cipher or something more complex, make sure your message is worth reading. =)

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[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

Plus you could learn a bit of letterlocking to some flair — and a sense of puzzly secrecy and personalization — to your message.

Even if you don’t go the encryption route, the unique presentation of a letter-locked message makes a simple card or a heartfelt note feel more precious.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Have you considered a puzzle bouquet? You could grab some newspaper crosswords and origami them into flower shapes for a fun puzzle-fueled spin on a holiday classic.

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Or you could hide jigsaw pieces around the house that, when put together, spell out a Valentine’s message or a picture of the two of you.

Put your own spin on the idea. A little bit of effort can go a long way, plus it doesn’t cost anything.

With a little more effort, you could whip up a scavenger hunt! You could leave clues around leading to a gift, or a romantic dinner, or some other grand finale. Maybe offer a rose with each clue.

Show off how much you know about him or her. You could make each clue or destination about your relationship or about your partner, allowing you to show off how well you know them… where you first met, favorite meals, favorite movie…

If you don’t want to leave things around where anyone could nab them, keep a few small tokens on you, giving one for each destination reached or clue solved. Heck, you could enlist a friend to text clues to your special someone once they’ve reached a particular destination!

Or for something less formal, you could make a game of your romantic wanderings and play Valentine’s Day Bingo.

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[I found this blank template on Makoodle.com.]

Maybe go for a walk or take your loved one out to dinner, and see if they can get bingo by observing different things. A couple holding hands as they walk, a Valentine’s Day proposal, outrageously priced flowers…

The possibilities are endless when you put your mind to it.


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The Countess Who Revolutionized European Spycraft

[Image courtesy of Derek Bruff.org.]

The history of codebreaking is a fascinating subject not only for the mythic figures and their brain-melting accomplishments, but also for the unsung heroes who are only recently being rediscovered.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a woman who shaped a new foundation for American codebreaking, but has long since been overshadowed by the reputation of her husband William Friedman (as well as FBI sexism and self-promotion which helped to bury and/or co-opt her accomplishments as their own).

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Of course, not her page. The page on her family line.]

And as part of my research into Elizebeth’s story, I encountered a curious anecdote from the 1600s about another codebreaker and influential spymaster who history had forgotten.

From The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone:

Monks, librarians, linguists, pianists and flutists, diplomats, scribes, postal clerks, astrologers, alchemists, players of games, lotharios, revolutionaries in coffee shops, kings and queens: these are the ones who built the field across the centuries and pushed the boundaries forward, stubborn individuals with a lot of time to sit and think and not give up. Most were men who did not believe women intellectually or morally capable of breaking codes; some were women who took advantage of this prejudice to steal secrets in the shadows.

One of the more cunning and effective codebreakers of the seventeenth century was a Belgian countess named Alexandrine, who upon the death of her husband in 1628 took over the management of an influential post office, The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis, which routed mail all throughout Europe.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Naturally, I was intrigued. But there’s surprisingly little out there about Alexandrine, whose full title was Alexandrine of Rye-Varax, Countess of Taxis, widow of Leonard II, Count of Taxis, occasionally shortened to Alexandrine von Taxis. She gets merely a paragraph on Wikipedia, and most Google searches only feature her as part of noble family trees.

Which is amazing, because she created the first verifiable Black Chamber in Europe — better known ones in England, France, and Germany weren’t established until the late seventeenth century. (A Black Chamber is a secret spy room or intelligence office, and Alexandrine’s was not only one of the first, but it was one of the most expansive.)

Despite her status as a widow, she was sworn into office as Postmistress in 1628 (serving as such until 1646, when her son would come of age), using those years to improve the wealth and status of her family while expanding the reach of the Taxis postal business, based in the Spanish Netherlands.

[The Taxis postal service, circa 1505-1516.
Blurry image courtesy of ApfelbaumInc.com.]

Alexandrine took over the Taxis postal service — the primary postal service across the continent, save for private couriers. She had a monopoly over the post in Europe, and was the de facto postmistress for the entire Holy Roman Empire.

And she used that position to her advantage, forming the Chamber of Taxis, an elite intelligence team composed of agents, forgers, scribes, codebreakers, and artisans. In a couple of hours, they could melt the wax seals off letters, copy their contents (in short-hand, often), decipher any coded messages, forge a new seal (and any other marks, including signatures, that would authenticate a seal), reseal the letter, and send it on its way, the invasion of privacy undetected.

She spoke four languages — French, Dutch, Italian, and German — and was very politcally savvy, cultivating relationships with fellow nobles even as she prowled through their private messages.

It’s not clear for whom she was spying. Some sources claim she sold her information to the highest bidder, while others claim she worked for both Emperor Ferdinand II and his son and successor Ferdinand III.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

What is clear, however, is that many discounted her and the Chamber of Taxis as a possible threat because of who she was. Sir Balthazar Gerbier, an agent of Charles I, suspected her early on, but discounted his own instincts because of “her honesty, dignity, and sex.”

Yes, the fact that she was a woman disqualified her in the minds of many from being capable of the sort of deceit and spycraft going on in the Chamber. (It also rankled some, like several German princes, that she was in a position of power at all, given her sex.)

And discounting her was a mistake, given that she commanded a crucial hub in the postal network.

[Yes, there’s even a board game based on the family business.
No spycraft though, unfortunately. Image courtesy of 999 Games.]

From Diplomacy and Early Modern Culture, edited by R. Adams and R. Cox:

Since the 1490s Brussels had been the gateway to Europe’s postal network, connecting international postal routes from Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia, and England. One single family, the Counts of Taxis (from 1649/50 Thurn and Taxis), commanded the mounted couriers over these many-branched routes.

Yes, the family name and title changed, and that was also Alexandrine’s doing.

When those aforementioned German princes questioned having a woman running the Taxis postal service, she ordered a full ancestral workup. That examination revealed her family’s ties to another important lineage, and from that point on, The Thurn and Taxis postal service (as well as her spy organization, The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis) would bear that additional name, increasing the prestige and reputation of both family and business alike.

For eighteen years, Countess Alexandrine commanded both a business and a spy network that spanned the European continent, influencing the information flowing between various noble families, and no doubt helping to shape the future of Europe.

I sincerely hope more is revealed about her life and the work of The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis in the future. I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface of the role she (and the group) played in European history.


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Unsung Tales of Women in American Code Breaking!

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Dot Braden. Agnes Driscoll. Betty Hyatt. Elizebeth Friedman. Genevieve Grotjan. Ann Caracristi. Virginia Aderholdt. Ruth “Crow” Weston.

You don’t know these names, but you should. Everyone should. They’re bona fide American heroes who dedicated their time and energy to protecting not only our country, but also every soldier in the Allied forces during World War II. And they did so when they should have otherwise been continuing their collegiate studies.

That’s right, these women who came from majors as diverse as botany, math, psychology, and English, were recruited out of college in order to build a dedicated code-breaking unit for the US armed forces.

Thankfully, their stories are now being told in Liza Mundy’s new book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. And these are some amazing stories.

It all started in early 1942, as secret letters began showing up in college mailboxes. Schools like Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Radcliffe, and more posed two questions to prospective female recruits:

1. Did she like crossword puzzles?
2. Was she engaged to be married?

All of these women replied yes, they like crossword puzzles, and no, they’re not engaged or soon-to-be engaged.

After answering these questions, the women began attending introductory meetings. They were issued manila envelopes containing “a brief introduction to the arcane history of codes and ciphers, along with numbered problems sets and strips of paper with the letters of the alphabet printed on them.”

Their orders? Complete the problem sets every week.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Each packet contained one problem that could not be solved, to show that sometimes, a jumble of letters or numbers doesn’t stand for anything. Sometimes, gibberish remains just that, because sometimes a code-breaker fails.

They developed working knowledge of foreign languages they didn’t speak. They memorized the most common English letters — E, T, O, N, A, I, R, S — and took frequency counts.

And that’s how America built its answer to England’s Bletchley Park code-breaking operation. (The American effort, known as Arlington Hall, was considered by their Bletchley Park rivals as “just a lot of kids playing at ‘office’.”)

College presidents like Ada Comstock, the president of Radcliffe College (the women’s counterpart to Harvard), were recruited to identify candidates to learn cryptanalysis to help shorten the war.

And make no mistake, they did shorten the war. They helped crack Enigma, which was key to decimating the German U-boat fleet, and their code-breaking efforts were instrumental in defeating Japan as well, providing valuable intel on the island-to-island battles of the Pacific theater.

[Image courtesy of Military Factory.]

Of the US Army’s World War II code-breaking force, nearly 70 percent was female. We’re talking 7,000 female code-breakers. When you factor in US Navy recruits as well, that number jumps to 11,000 women out of 20,000 code-breakers.

From Code Girls: “Code breaking required literacy, numeracy, care, creativity, painstaking attention to detail, a good memory, and a willingness to hazard guesses. It required a tolerance for drudgery and a boundless reserve of energy and optimism.”

Genevieve Grotjan was key to cracking the Japanese cipher known as Purple, and William Friedman, the man who initially ran the Arlington Hall operation, described the Purple cipher as “by far the most difficult cryptanalytic problem successfully handled and solved by any signal intelligence organization in the world.” He specifically pointed to the contrbutions of Grotjan, Mary Louise Prather, and other women in the Arlington Hall group.

Codes used by twenty-five different nations were analyzed by Arlington Hall, including codes of friends and foes alike. “There was a French code called Jellyfish, a Chinese enciphered code they called Jabberwocky, another they called Gryphon.”

But even their staggering efforts in code-breaking weren’t all they contributed to the cause. They were also crucial to the success of the D-Day invasion, as many of the women were put to work reverse-engineering messages in order to create false information about imaginary troop movements and landing areas. And in order to create fake signal traffic, they had to know the real traffic backward and forward.

I could go into more detail, breaking down how they cracked some of the war’s most important code languages, or exploring their personal lives and how life changed for these college students-turned-military operatives, but I don’t want to reveal more than I have already.

Read Code Girls. You won’t regret it. It’s another terrific entry in a year of books full of revelations about wartime puzzle history. We’ve been taken behind the scenes of the NSA, Bletchley Park, and now Arlington Hall.

And once more, important and influential female voices are getting the limelight far later than they deserve. It’s about time.


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