Mrs. Agnes Driscoll has been called the “First Lady of Naval Cryptology.” In a truly remarkable career she served the U.S. Government from June 1918 through July, 1959.
Agnes May Meyer was born in Illinois on July 24, 1889, the daughter of Dr. Gustave Frederick Meyer and Lucy Andrews Shaw Meyer. She received an A.B. degree from Ohio State University in 1911, where her main subjects were mathematics, physics, music and languages. It was unusual for a woman of her day to pursue subjects of this nature. After college, Miss Meyer moved to Amarillo, Texas, where she taught music and mathematics at two schools.
In 1918, Miss Meyer entered the Naval Reserve. She was able to enlist as a Chief Yeoman, predominantly because of her knowledge of stenography. In addition to other skills that she possessed, Miss Meyer was proficient in German, French, Latin and Japanese. She brought with her teaching experience abilities in language, statistics, mathematics, physics, engineering and clerical skills, and began what was to be a remarkable career as a pioneer cryptanalyst and cryptographer. She was discharged on February 5, 1920 and was immediately hired as a civilian in the Office of the Director of Naval Communications, first as a stenographer and then as a clerk. Although a Navy Department employee, from 1920 until 1924, Miss Meyer worked for several cryptologic research laboratories. These included the Department of Ciphers at Riverbank Laboratories in Illinois, owned and overseen by millionaire “Colonel” George Fabyan. Fabyan paid her expenses and her salary, and the Navy gave its blessing to the venture. She also worked for a time at the New York offices of the “American Back Chamber.” She showed remarkable aptitude for the cryptology field and after she returned to Washington she proved her skills by solving an “unbreakable” message enciphered using a new machine developed by Edward Hebern. Miss Meyer took a leave of absence to help Mr. Hebern evaluate his machine.
Mrs. Driscoll returned to the Navy Department in August, 1924, having married a Washington lawyer, Michael Bernard Driscoll. In 1920, the Office of Naval Intelligence had managed to break into the Japanese Consulate in New York City and to photograph all of the pages of the Japanese fleet code book. This code book was know to the Americans as the “Red Book.” When Mrs. Driscoll jointed the Navy Research Desk (OP-20-G) in 1924, she assumed the responsibility of decoding the “Red Book.” Her work paid off in many ways, vastly increasing the United States’ knowledge of Japanese Grand maneuvers, fuel supplies, and advances in naval aviation.
In the fall of 1931, the Japanese introduced a new code system, which became known as the “Blue Boo.” Mrs. Driscoll was the first to break this code. Among the valuable pieces of information learned was the speed of Japanese battleships. This information resulting in redesign of American’s new battleships.
In October, 1937, Mrs. Driscoll was in a serious automobile accident that resulted in a one year recuperation period. Those who know her well have frequently indicated that the accident greatly affected her personality and resulted in her later reclusive ways.
By June, 1939, Japan was using a new code, JN-25, which was completely different from its earlier codes. Mrs. Driscoll realized that this new code was machine-generated, and she developed a manual means of decoding. She continued working for the Naval Security Group, and later the National Security Agency, until retirement in 1959 at age 70.
Agnes Driscoll left a legacy of overall genius as one of the navy’s first cryptologists and as the teacher of many pioneer officers. She was considered a character by some, a mystery by other, and a genius to the few who had known her at the height of her career.
It would be sad, indeed, if Mrs. Agnes May Meyer Driscoll were to be forgotten by this generation of cryptologists. We may very well owe her a professional debt that can only be repaid by continuing her awesome legacy of devotion and technical competence.
In 2000, Agnes Myer Driscoll was inducted in the National Security Agency Hall of Honor.
Mrs. Driscoll died in 1971 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.