Marie Vahjen (1880-?) from New York was one of the few women who filed a patent for an encryption device.

Deutsche Version des Artikels (Beta)

The role of women in cryptography has been a popular research topic in recent years. Jason Fagone and G. Stuart Smith published biographies of codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman, while Liza Mundy wrote the book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. The NSA monography Sharing the Burden: Women in Cryptology during World War II by Jennifer Wilcox is available online. For information and literature about women in Bletchley Park during the Second World War, check the Wikipedia article Women in Bletchley Park.

In spite of the stories told in these publications, there can be no doubt that women played only a minor role in the history of crypto. Before the 20th century, it was as good as impossible for a woman to make a career in the cipher business. Loads of talent were wasted.


Marie Vahjen

A look into the book United States Cryptographic Patents by Jack Levine reveals that only very few cryptologic patents were filed by women.

Source: “United States Cryptographic Patents” by Jack Levine

When I recenty read the pages about crypto inventions of the 1920s, I only spotted one female name: Marie Vahjen. In 1925, Vahjen was granted a patent for a “device for secret writing”. I decided to dig a little deeper in order to find out more about this woman and her invention.

According to the patent specification, Marie Vahjen lived in the New York City area. Her home place was Guttenberg, New Jersey, a town separated from Manhattan by the Hudson River. Guttenberg is less than two kilometers away from the Central Park. The said patent is the only one by Marie Vahjen I could find on Google Patents.

The name “Vahjen” (pronounced: fa-yen) is German. It’s a rare name that today only appears in the state of Lower-Saxony (Niedersachsen), around the city of Braunschweig.

When I searched for more information about this person via Google, I found the following “Declaration of Intention”:

Source: Fold 3

This document reveals that Marie Vahjen was born in 1880 in Hanover, Lower Saxony, Germany. Her maiden name was Meyer. She emigrated to the USA in 1898. According to the myheritage website, Marie Meyer married a man named Johann (John) Vahjen, also born in Germany (probably Lower Saxony), in 1902 and accepted his name. The above form indicates her marrital status as “separated”.

In the year after the wedding, Johann Vahjen filed a patent for a cash register.


The device for secret writing

Let’s look at the crypto tool Marie Vahjen invented. My understanding is that this device is a kind of ruler, the markings of which serve as a key. With this ruler, a series of marks representing numbers (in this case: 572412) can be drawn on an item:

Source: Patent

When the ruler (i.e., the key) is removed, only the marks remain. Somebody who doesn’t have the ruler will have difficulties to find out what these marks mean …

Source: Patent

…, provided that they see them at all. With the ruler, it is easy to change back the marks to a series of numbers:

Source: Patent

Needless to say, that Marie Vahjen’s invention is not the most exciting crypto device in the world. Tools like these may have been used in practice, but I don’t think they were ever regarded as an invention, let alone that they were attributed to Marie Vahjen.

Anyway, the device for secret writing is another contribution of a woman to the history of cryptology.

It would be great to know more about Marie Vahjen and her background. If a reader has information about her, please let me know.

Further reading: The Zschweigert encryption machine and HistoCrypt 2020


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Kommentare (11)

  1. #1 Peter Lichtenberger
    am Balkon im Schlot der Märtyrer des Tartaros
    11. November 2020

    Vielleicht sollt man die US-Einwanderungsunterlagen einsehen…
    Maybe someone shall take a look in US-Immigration-Files…

  2. #2 Richard SantaColoma
    11. November 2020

    Nothing important to add, but I always enjoy seeing if the homes of the people learned about, still exist.

    Here we can see the home of Marie Vahjens probably not looking much different than when she lived there.

    Reading the patent, is seems she intended her device to be used to mark automobile or other parts so that the origins of them could not be hidden. She was on the right track: Today, to thwart thieves, almost every automobile part has serial numbers, in order to make it difficult for the theft and sale of stolen cars and parts. There are even electronic serial numbers in the computers of cars.

  3. #3 Gerry
    11. November 2020

    Fom a genealogy webpage: Marie Vahjen was born on April 5, 1880. She died in July 1976 at 96 years of age. She had been residing in Bronx, Bronx County, New York 10471.

  4. #4 Gerd
    11. November 2020

    The method described reminds me at the Machine Identification Code uses in today’s laser printers. This is also a certain arrangement of dots with the “ruler” removed and not visible. So the system is kind of steganographic.

  5. #5 Thomas
    12. November 2020

    According to an article from the New York Sun, the divorce suit had been brought by her husband, Guttenberg brewer John Vahjen, in 1912. The court procedure took a long time, moreover, she went to prison due to bigamy in 1919:

    Apparently she was quite versatile: She ran the Mava Realty Corp. at least until the 1940s from this house she had purchased in 1924 (and where she might have devides her crypto ruler)

  6. #6 Thomas
    12. November 2020

    To me it’s not clear from the court document who went to prison: she or he.

  7. #7 Jerry McCarthy
    England, Europa...
    12. November 2020

    @Thomas. There is one sentence at the end of that document which, I think, clarifies that it was*he* who went to prison.

    “Since Vahjen’s liberation from prison, neither the petitioner nor the bondsmen have been able to ascertain his whereabouts, “…..

    Also, only men are capable of committing “bigamy”. The female offence would be “biandry”.

  8. #8 Thomas
    12. November 2020

    @Jerry McCarthy:

    Much appreciated! I wonder whether “polygamy” in the declaration of intention above includes both bigamy and biandry.

  9. #9 Jerry McCarthy
    England, Europa.
    13. November 2020

    @Thomas. Actually no, at least not technically. “Bigamy” is two wives, “Biandry” is two husbands, the words “Polygamy/polyandry” refer to two *or more* wives/husbands.

    These are the technical definitions; they are often misused, however.

  10. #10 Klaus Schmeh
    13. November 2020

    @all: Thanks for your contributions. We know a little more about Marie Vahjen now. It seems, she was an unusual woman for her time.

  11. #11 Klaus Schmeh
    14. November 2020

    Doug Jones via Facebook:
    My first thought was a piano…