Sir James Alfred Ewing, one of history’s true unsung heroes, died this week (Jan. 7) in 1935. Ewing ran the unparalleled code-cracking team that worked in “Room 40” (where the team started, but quickly expanded) in the British Admiralty during World War I. When that war ended, the 90-plus code-breakers who worked in Room 40 had decrypted nearly 15,000 German communications, mostly German naval codes, which gave the British Royal Navy a leg up against the German High Seas Fleet. To give two famous examples, at the battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland the British Admiralty benefitted greatly from Room 40’s intelligence, although — especially at Jutland — they didn’t always use it well.
As for Ewing, he was a trained engineer who had taught at Tokyo University in Japan and later at King’s College, Cambridge. But his hobby had always been cracking secret codes — a hobby he began as a boy solving acrostic puzzles in newspapers.
Ewing was also, certainly by Edwardian England’s standards, an egalitarian who hired code-breakers for their talent, not their background. As a result, in addition to professors, his Room 40 team included a business tycoon, a dress designer, a priest, a music critic, former soldiers and a historian. What’s more, Ewing was neither militaristic nor corporate in the work environment he fostered, which attracted talented people — “oddballs, misfits and boffins,” as they became known — who never would have survived the standard disciplinary regime of the British Admiralty. Indeed, perhaps Room 40’s most brilliant member was Alfred Knox, whom Ewing allowed to work while sitting in a bathtub because Knox claimed he did his best thinking surrounded by “an atmosphere of soap and steam.” Ewing also hired many women.
In addition to naval codes, the Room 40 team successfully cracked German diplomatic codes, which led to its most famous success, decrypting “The Zimmerman Telegram,” a secret communication from Arthur Zimmerman, Germany’s foreign secretary, to the president of Mexico, proposing an alliance with Mexico against the United States should the latter decide to enter the war against Germany.
Which the United States was definitely considering, and when the British shared the particulars of the Zimmerman Telegram with the American government — including Germany’s offer to help Mexico reclaim its former territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona — there was a firestorm in the American press and among the American people. While the resumption of German U-boat attacks against neutral powers, including the United States, was the chief reason the United States subsequently declared war on Germany, the Zimmerman Telegram was definitely a factor. As a result — thanks in part to Sir James and his “oddballs, misfits and boffins” — Great Britain ended up on the winning side of that war.