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George Fabyan celebrated for fostering first think tank
From: InfoSec News <isn () c4i org>
Date: Sat, 16 Jun 2001 14:16:00 -0500 (CDT)
By F.N. D'ALESSIO, Associated Press
GENEVA, Ill. (June 13, 2001 09:34 p.m. EDT) - On a laboratory wall 40
miles west of Chicago, a plaque cryptically reads: "To the memory of
George Fabyan from a grateful government."
The plaque at the Riverbank Acoustic Laboratory was presented several
years ago by the National Security Agency, an organization that didn't
exist when Col. George Fabyan died 65 years ago this month. And it
doesn't specify what the government was being grateful for - which is
Just what do you say in thanks to a man who was best known for
persuading a Chicago judge to rule that Sir Francis Bacon wrote the
works of Shakespeare and for building an antigravity machine that
Fabyan, a millionaire cloth dealer, spent years and a small fortune
pursuing both notions. His 300-acre estate, Riverbank, housed one of
the world's first think tanks - staffed by cryptologists, geneticists
and acoustic scientists. They didn't discover much to support Fabyan's
theories, but inadvertently contributed to U.S. victory in both World
And Fabyan didn't seem to mind that his experts rarely found what he
hired them to do. He seemed content with whatever they could generate
- even notoriety.
That notoriety hit its high-water mark on April 21, 1916, when Judge
Richard S. Tuthill issued a ruling on a lawsuit brought against Fabyan
by motion picture producer William N. Selig, who was releasing a
series of Shakespearean movies in conjunction with the 300th
anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Selig filed his lawsuit ostensibly
to keep Fabyan from publishing a book that would use code analysis to
prove Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare's plays.
After listening to Fabyan's cryptologists, Tuthill ruled: "This cipher
convinces me that Bacon not only wrote the works attributed to
Shakespeare, but also (Edmund) Spenser's best output, (Robert)
Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy' and all of (Robert) Greene and
"Bacon must have been a very busy man!" was the amused comment of a
modern Shakespeare scholar, professor Gail Kern Paster of George
Washington University and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
In 1916, Tuthill's ruling was front-page news in New York and London,
but Chicago reporters greeted it cynically. They knew that Fabyan,
Selig and Tuthill were all friends. They also knew the self-educated
Tuthill had a love of showing up his college-trained colleagues on the
bench. And, as a chancery court judge, he had no business ruling on a
civil lawsuit in the first place.
The notion that it was a "put up job" gained strength when Selig's
assistant, Jack Wheeler, was questioned by the Chicago Tribune about
the $5,000 damages his boss was ordered to pay.
"Isn't that sad?" Wheeler wisecracked. "That will be about 9 million
columns of publicity, won't it?"
Selig proceeded to release his movies, while court authorities
reprimanded the 75-year-old Tuthill and voided his ruling.
It's not known precisely when Fabyan became interested in Bacon, but
in 1912 or 1913 he arranged housing at Riverbank for Elizabeth Wells
Gallup, a woman who claimed to have found ciphers in Shakespeare's
plays, indicating that Bacon was their true author.
Such claims were nothing new, and had been the subject of at least one
19th-century best seller. But Gallup provided a new twist by saying
she had found cryptographic evidence that Bacon was really the son of
Queen Elizabeth I, and thereby the true heir to the English throne.
Bacon was known to have invented and used a "bilateral cipher" which
used two different typefaces in each message. Each set of five letters
in the printed text represented one letter in the coded message. Using
capital and lowercase letters, for example, "Aaaa" might stand for
"a," "aAaaa" might be "b," and "aaAaa" might be "c" ... on through
"aAaAA" as "x," "aaAAA" as "y," and "AAAAa" as "z."
In actual use, the cipher could be relatively subtle. The first line
of "Macbeth" - "When shall we three meet again?" - could be printed in
a combination of regular and italic letters to spell any five-letter
encoded name, such as "Elvis."
Since the earliest editions of Shakespeare's works were printed in a
jumble of different typefaces, Fabyan thought there might be a
glimmering of truth in Gallup's claims. He paid to have early
Shakespeare editions and Bacon manuscripts sent from England for her
use, and recruited a staff of clerks and had them trained in
Fabyan read in one of Bacon's works a description of a levitation
device that allegedly worked on acoustic principles. He built one, but
couldn't get it to fly, so he sent to Harvard University for some
acoustic experts to help him.
Fabyan also had some unrelated stock-breeding experiments in mind, so
he hired a young Cornell University geneticist, William Friedman.
Friedman turned out to be the true find. He fell in love with
cryptographer Elizebeth Smith, and taught himself her specialty in a
matter of weeks. He soon proved capable of cracking Britain's most
sophisticated field code at a speed that was previously believed
But as Friedeman improved the code-breaking, Gallup's anticipated
breakthrough on the authorship question failed to occur. The
cryptanalysis simply didn't find anything useful and Friedman began to
suspect that no cipher existed.
The cryptology project might have dissolved had the United States not
entered World War I in April 1917. The federal government had
virtually no cryptographers, and Fabyan had plenty, so Riverbank
became the NSA of its day. Newlyweds William and Elizebeth Friedman
were soon cracking German and Mexican codes for the U.S. military and
helping Scotland Yard expose anti-British agents in North America.
When the U.S. Army finally established its own Cipher Bureau, its
first 88 officers were trained by Fabyan and the Friedmans at
Riverbank. When they graduated, William Friedman took a commission
himself and went to France.
The Friedmans returned to Riverbank briefly in 1920 and then entered
William Friedman became the nation's top code breaker and led the
successful effort to crack the Japanese codes before World War II.
Elizebeth Friedman did her code breaking for the Coast Guard and the
Treasury Department, and later established a secure communications
system for the International Monetary Fund.
In 1955, the Friedmans returned to the Shakespeare question in their
book, "The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined." Although they thanked
Fabyan for encouraging code studies, they concluded that they began
their careers seeking something that did not exist.
Fabyan died in 1936, without ever getting his Baconian levitating
machine off the ground. But the building where it was housed, and
where the plaque now hangs, is still a functioning research facility,
specializing in architectural acoustics.
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- George Fabyan celebrated for fostering first think tank InfoSec News (Jun 18)