“There was an air of good-fellowship in the room and I was soon at home. However, I was mystified at the casual attitudes of these overworked code clerks. Daily history passed through their hands in one long stream an they though less of it than of the baseball scores. The murder of Madero, the shelling go Vera Cruz, the Rumblings of a threatening World War—these merely meant more telegrams, longer hours—nothing else.” (Herbert O. Yardley in, The American Black Chamber, p.18)

The Pupil's Metamorphosis: Climbing Up the Ranks

Arriving in Washington D.C in 1913, at the age of 23, Herbert O. Yardley had first planned to become a lawyer, but instead obtained a job as a code clerk in the State Department Code Room, with a salary of $900 a year.  As Yardley settled into his new job, he became fascinated with the messages he continuously dispatched throughout the day, messages he believed shaped United State’s history. 

Washington D. C. in early 1900s

  • Eventually, his growing fascination evolved into curiosity and he wondered whether U.S diplomatic secrets were truly safe from wandering minds and eyes. With this question in mind, Yardley deduced that if he had the ability to read these “encrypted” telegrams, than perhaps U.S secrets were not as safe as we thought them to be. As one question led to another, Yardley discovered his new purpose, cryptography. However, in order to examine the safety of U.S codes, he first had to learn cryptography,  a task he set out to accomplish by spending countless hours in the Congressional Library, and through the use of the American Army pamphlet on the Solution of Military Ciphers

Washington D.C. Congressional Library

  • While he recognized the limitations of the knowledge available to the public, he was determined to grow past these skills and therefore, started to teach himself by attempting to decrypt the various copies of code and cipher communications forwarded by various embassies in Washington. Although it may have been illegal, this process played a significant role in the development of Yardley’s cryptological skills and knowledge. The true test, however, came when Yardley intercepted a coded telegram between Colonel House and the President.

In the span of two hours, Yardley was able to solve the coded telegram between President Wilson and Colonel House. Despite the urgency of it all, Yardley could not divulge his discovery, for fear of the punishment he could receive for reading classified messages.

Rather than acting rash , Yardley took a more professional approach, and began to work on a  memorandum that listed possible solutions to the problem he had identified.  After two years of continuous work, he finally produced, “Solutions Of  American Diplomatic codes,” which he later presented to one of his superiors, the man responsible for creating US codes, David Salmon.

Although Salmon was impressed with Yardley's memorandum and the extent of his self-taught ciphering skills, his timing could not have been any worse. It was 1917, and the United States was on the verge of entering the World War. At such a precarious situation, Salmon was unable to do much with Yardley's discovery. However, unwilling to allow one obstacle impede him, Yardley sought a  transfer into the War College, a department less restricted by the bureaucratic laws, and more willing to accomplish the impossible.