Agnes Meyer Driscoll

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Agnes Meyer Driscoll

Agnes Meyer Driscoll (July 24, 1889 – September 16, 1971), known as Miss Aggie or Madame X, was an American cryptanalyst during both World War I and World War II. Edwin T. Layton described her as "without peer as a cryptanalyst".[1]

Early years[edit]

Born in Illinois in 1889, Agnes May Meyer moved with her family to Westerville, Ohio in 1895 where her father, Gustav Meyer, had taken a job teaching music at Otterbein College. In 1909 he donated the family home to the Anti-Saloon League which recently moved its headquarters to Westerville.


Meyer attended Otterbein College from 1907 to 1909. In 1911, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Ohio State University, having majored in mathematics and physics[2] and studied foreign languages, statistics, and music.[3] She was fluent in English, French, German, Latin, and Japanese.[2] From her earliest days as a college student, she pursued technical and scientific studies. After graduation, she moved to Amarillo, Texas, where she lived from 1911 to 1918[4] and worked as director of music at a military academy, and, later, chair of the mathematics department at the local high school.

World War I and after[edit]

On June 22, 1918, about one year after America entered World War I, Agnes Meyer enlisted in the United States Navy – America had just started allowing women to enlist.[5] She was recruited at the highest possible rank of chief yeoman and after a stint in the Postal Cable and Censorship Office she was assigned to the Code and Signal section of the Director of Naval Communications.[5] After the war ended she made use of an option to continue working at her post as a civilian.[5] Except for a two-year hiatus, when she worked for a private firm, she would remain a leading cryptanalyst for the U.S. Navy until 1949.

Her efforts were not limited to manual systems; she was involved also in the emerging machine technology of the time, which was being applied both to making and breaking ciphers. In her first days in the Code and Signal section, she co-developed one of the U.S. Navy's cipher machines, the "CM." This cipher machine would become a standard enciphering device for the Navy in the 1920s.[5] In 1923, she solved a puzzle published in a magazine that was advertised as impossible. The creator, Edward Hebern of the fledgling Hebern Electric Code Company, was attempting to create a cipher machine; he offered her a job as technical advisor which she left the Navy to take. She worked on developing an early cipher machine.[5] Although Hebern's company ultimately failed, its work in rotor technology would affect machine cryptography for years to come. She returned to the navy in the spring of 1924. In August 1924 she married Michael Driscoll, a Washington, D.C. lawyer.

In early 1935, Agnes Driscoll led the attack on the Japanese M-1 cipher machine (also known to the U.S. as the ORANGE machine), used to encrypt the messages of Japanese naval attaches around the world.[4] At the same time she sponsored the introduction of early machine support for cryptanalysis against Japanese naval code systems.

In her thirty-year career, Agnes Driscoll and Lieutenant Joseph Rochefort broke Japanese Navy manual codes—the Red Book Code in 1926 after three years of work,[6] and the Blue Book Code in 1930, and in 1940 she made critical inroads into JN-25, the Japanese fleet's operational code, which the U.S. Navy exploited after the attack on Pearl Harbor for the rest of the Pacific War. She would be unable to finish this work, however, because she was transferred to a team working to break the German naval Enigma cipher.[5]

World War II and after[edit]

After getting the work against JN-25 started, Driscoll headed up a new group to attack the German Enigma ciphers using a catalog approach. Unfortunately the U.S. and U.K. did not communicate effectively and her approach both was fruitless and had been tried by the British, who determined that it was unlikely to work.[7] Ultimately this work was superseded by the US-UK cryptologic exchanges of 1942–43. She worked under Laurance Safford and Joseph Rochefort.

In 1943 she worked with a team to break the Japanese cipher Coral. It was broken two months later, although Driscoll is said to have had little influence on the project.[7]

In 1945 she appears to have worked on attacking Russian ciphers.[7]

Mrs. Driscoll was part of the navy contingent that joined the new national cryptologic agencies, firstly the Armed Forces Security Agency in 1949 and then the National Security Agency in 1952. While with the Armed Forces Security Agency she may have contributed to attacking a cipher called Venona.[7]

She retired from Armed Forces Security Agency in 1959.[8]


She died in 1971 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.[8]


In 2000 she was inducted into the National Security Agency's Hall of Honor.

The original version of this article appears to have been copied from the NSA Hall of Honor entry for Agnes Meyer Driscoll, which is in the public domain.


  1. ^ "Agnes Meyer Driscoll". Agnes Meyer Driscoll. Website cites the book "And I Was There". Archived from the original on 26 July 2008. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  2. ^ a b "Agnes Meyer Driscoll". Women in american Cryptology. NSA. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  3. ^ "Agnes Meyer Driscoll". Biographies of Women Mathematicians. Website cites the book "The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing". Archived from the original on 26 July 2008. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  4. ^ a b Hanyok, Robert. "Agnes Meyer Driscoll". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 13, 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Cryptologic Almanac 50th Anniversary Series" (PDF). NSA?. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 September 2013. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  6. ^ "Monday 201 File: Agnes Meyer Driscoll". The Bletchley Park Review (blog). Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Madame X: Agnes in Twilight,The Last Years of the Career of Agnes Driscoll, 1941–1957." (PDF). NSA. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 September 2013. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  8. ^ a b "Agnes Meyer Driscoll". Biographies of Women Mathematicians. Archived from the original on 26 July 2008. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 

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