Born on April 13, 1889 in Indiana, Herbert O. Yardley learned to use the telegraph from his father, Robert Kirkbride Yardley, a station master and telegrapher for a railroad. His mother, Mary Emma Osborn Yardley, died when he was 13.
After graduation from high school in 1907, Yardley went to the University of Chicago, but dropped out after one year and went back to Worthington, where he worked as a telegrapher for a railroad. He spent his free time learning how to play poker and applied his winnings towards his further schooling. On November 16, 1912, after passing the civil service exam, he was hired as a government telegrapher.
He accepted a Signal Corps Reserve commission and served as a cryptologic officer with the American Expeditionary Forces in France during WWI. In the 1920s he was chief of MI-8, the first U.S. peacetime cryptanalytic organization, jointly funded by the U.S. Army and the Department of State. In that capacity, he and a team of cryptanalysts exploited nearly two dozen foreign diplomatic cipher systems. MI-8 was disbanded in 1929 when the State Department withdrew its share of the funding.
Out of work, Yardley caused a sensation in 1931 with the publication of his memoirs of MI-8, “The American Black Chamber.” In this book, Yardley revealed the extent of U.S. cryptanalytic work in the 1920s. Surprisingly, the wording of the espionage laws at that time did not permit prosecution of Yardley. (This situation was changed two years later with a new law imposing stiff penalties for unauthorized revelations of cryptologic secrets.)
Yardley did some cryptologic work for Canada and China during World War II, but he was never again given a position of trust in the U.S. government. On August 7, 1958, Herbert O. Yardley, one of the pioneers of modern American cryptology passed away.
13 April 2021 at 11:34
Thanks as always for your sharing some great stories.
13 April 2021 at 13:04
Another great story, died way too young.
13 April 2021 at 13:52
I am really surprised that a person could rise from such a small town in southwestern Indiana back then to gain fame as a Navy Cryptologist. My grandfather was born the same year as Yardley about 30 miles to the southeast and I was born about 22 miles to the northeast from Worthington. My grandfather was an engineer on the same railroad (Pennsylvannia from Indianapolis to Vincennes) that Yardley practiced his telegrapher skills. It is possible they knew each other or had family members who did. 30 miles southwest of Worthington is Bicknell a larger town where my grandparents lived for a some years when I was growing up. White River and the PRR railroad and Indiana highway 67 all connect Worthington with Bicknell, Worthington, Freedom, Spencer, Gosport and Paragon where I was raised. Nice to know that another farm boy from the hills of southern Indiana made it out to see the world. I have passed through Worthington hundreds of times!
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14 April 2021 at 03:07
After being read into the program in 1929, a shocked incoming Secretary of State Henry Stimson famously proclaimed “Gentlemen do not read each others mail” and pulled State’s funding. That ended the Black Chamber, shutting off an important intel source shortly before our future opponents in Europe and the Pacific began ramping up.
Left jobless and understandably bitter at the onset of the Great Depression, Yardley helped support himself by detailing his exploits in a series of magazine articles. These were later compiled into the book “The American Black Chamber” which is still in print (Amazon and USNI).
A later book, “The Chinese Black Chamber”, based on some Yardley exploits declassified in 1983 may also be of interest.
15 April 2021 at 19:42
Lieutenant Colonel George W. Bicknell was assistant G-2 of the Hawaiian Department in 1941. Bicknell had collateral duty as OIC, Contact Office of the Hawaiian Department located in Honolulu. Bicknell was an Army cryptanalyst in World War I. Is Bicknell, Pennsylvania named after the same family of Bicknell’s that G.W. Bicknell was a member of?