Our Founding Figures: Agnes Meyer Driscoll

As a team, we believe in a collaborative culture to foster creativity, ingenuity, and adaptation as both the cybersecurity and threat landscapes evolve. To that effect, we recognize the unsung heroes of technology who laid the foundation and make our work possible today.

 Agnes Meyer Driscoll, 1889 — 1971

Modern cybersecurity, codebreaking, and physical security measures are informed by different disciplines. Psychology can shed light on human behavior, mathematics can reveal unusual patterns, and foreign language studies offer different ways of thinking and communicating. When considering the best ways to protect devices, networks, or even entire countries, experience from any and all domains are necessary. In this light, we recognize Agnes Meyer Driscoll, also known as Madame X, for her diverse education, career, and how she revolutionized codebreaking for years to come.

Diverse Background

Before earning her rightful place in the Cryptologic Hall of Honor, Agnes Meyer Driscoll was a “typical daughter of middle America.” According to NSA Historian, Dr. David A. Hatch, Driscoll held traditional small-town, American values of her time (the late 1800s), but had the advantage of a robust education. Her father was a professor at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, where she went on to begin her studies for a few years. Driscoll ultimately earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Ohio State University in 1911, specializing in both sciences and languages. Her specialties were math and physics, but her studies also included statistics, music, English, French, German, Latin, and Japanese.

Surely her diverse academic background would lend countless career opportunities, but there were few avenues available to women at the time (despite her impressive skills). After graduating, Driscoll began her career as a music teacher for the Lowrey-Phillips School, a military academy in Amarillo, Texas. Being sure to maintain a diverse skillset, she eventually became the school’s chair of the mathematics department as well.

Called to Service

At the dawn of WWI, military services in the United States found themselves in need of more resources, more soldiers, and more specialized roles. In this vein, women were encouraged to join more so than they had been in the recent past. Agnes Meyer Driscoll followed suit one year after WWI was declared by enlisting in the Navy, where she earned the highest possible ranking for women at the time, Chief Yeoman (F), in 1918.

In this role, Driscoll worked under the Director of Naval Communications, focusing within the “Code and Signal” department. This was one of the first efforts in creating an organized cryptanalyst domain, and thanks to Driscoll’s skills, in particular, she was on the cutting edge of founding the profession. When code breakers were needed pre-WWI, it was common for educated amateurs to step in to help. Oftentimes, college professors or other notable academics would help lift the burden, but these efforts were disorganized and could leave national security at a disadvantage.

Setting Standards

In helping to standardize the field of cryptology in general, Agnes Meyer Driscoll contributed to several devices to break codes, as well as studied methodologies for creating stronger codes on behalf of the United States. For the invention of the Communications Machine (CM), a sliding alphabet system that became the standard cipher for the Navy, she was awarded $15,000 to split with its co-creator.

Despite no manuals, no textbooks, and nearly no organized education in this field, Agnes Meyer Driscoll’s sheer experience proved to be extremely valuable for future efforts of the U.S. Navy. Beyond WWI and well into the 1930s, Driscoll continued to apply her skills towards Japanese intelligence — most notably breaking “The Red Book” (the Japanese operational codebook), Japan’s M-1 Machine Cipher System (revealing Japan’s naval plans), and even exposing two American spies who had been passing equally sensitive information to Japanese forces at the time. Without her contributions, NSA historian Dr. David A Hatch claims, “…if this had not been learned in the 1930s, we would’ve started WWII with an even greater disadvantage.”

During this time, Navy code breakers were all required to be uniformed officers, a role that would not have been awarded to Driscoll due to her gender. According to reports from the uniformed officers of her time, the most pivotal code breaks were thanks to her. Despite her unfair low ranking, Driscoll continuously provided the intel needed to secure the country. She went on to train Edwin Layton and Joseph Rochefort, both key code breakers during WWII and the Battle of Midway in particular.

Lasting Impact

Few people have the dedication, or even mere ability, to become experts in the fields that Agnes Meyer Driscoll tackled. She alone could evoke her experience in foreign languages, physics, science, math, and apply them seamlessly to the field of cryptology. She is recognized today as a key intelligence expert and a pillar in standardizing modern cryptology. By bringing different domains together, she contributed not only to military efforts but to the brand-new field of cryptology and subsequent security fields.

While no one person has all of the solutions to modern security concerns, we applaud Driscoll for truly embodying the culmination of several fields into one. By considering disciplines from foreign languages, traditional codebreaking techniques, and even modern encryption strategies, Tetra is equally inspired to provide the protection that’s required. Despite the limitations she faced in her career, we admire her courage and her diverse experiences that shed light on the fields of cryptology and threat intelligence.

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