Kane County History: The Women Who Broke Codes at Riverbank Labs in Geneva

Kane County History: The Women Who Broke Codes at Riverbank Labs in Geneva

Riverbank Laboratories in the late 1940s or early 1950s. (CREDIT: Geneva History Museum)

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Terry Emma, director of the Geneva History Museum. All photos are courtesy of the History Museum.

Whether used between school children, forbidden lovers, or by militaries, secret methods of communication have fascinated many. Codes and secrets have changed the course of history through the strength of cryptic intelligence.

Geneva’s own Riverbank Laboratories, founded by Col. George Fabyan, was a rich center for code-busting.

Elizebeth Smith and her husband, William Friedman, both worked at Riverbank during the early 20th century. William was initially hired as a geneticist which eventually segued into work with codes. Elizebeth and William fell in love while working together and eventually married.

Riverbank Laboratories was one of the only places where there was an organized group working on codes.

During World War I, the government sent a test message from the British War Department of a code to be used on the western front. William decoded the message within an hour and, in their own code sent back, “This code is absolutely indecipherable.”

Fabyan offered the lab’s assistance to the government, and soon Friedman was teaching code-breaking to military personnel.

While Elizebeth worked closely with William, her contributions to the field of cryptology were unique.

In honor of National Women’s History Month, join the Geneva History Museum at noon Tuesday, March 10, for a special Skype presentation with author G. Stuart Smith, great-nephew of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who will discuss his book, “A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman.”

Copies of his signed book will be available for purchase. Admission is $3 for members and $5 for non-members.

Visit genevahistorymuseum.org or call 630-232-4951 to register for the program.


Feature Photo Caption

Elizebeth Smith, later Friedman, stands in the second row, middle, at Geneva’s Riverbank Laboratories, c. 1916. The tall man in the back row in the middle is Dr. J.A. Powell, later Captain Powell, liaison officer between Riverbank Laboratories and Army Headquarters in France.

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