Obituary: Codebreaker, alumnus dies at 96

Samuel Snyder was a code-breaker in World War II, a pioneer in the computer world and someone the National Security Agency considers an integral figure in the modern computing industry’s development. One of GW’s most distinguished alumni, Snyder died Dec. 28 at 96 years old.

At the height of the depression, Snyder, a native Washingtonian, attended night school at GW and worked various government jobs during the day. While studying at GW, he became one of the first 10 employees of the Signal Intelligence Service, a government department known for deciphering military codes of enemy countries. Snyder graduated from GW in 1939 with a B.S. in chemistry.

Sol, Snyder’s eldest son and current professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, recalls his father’s knack for math and science.

While roughly 7,000 of his GW peers were serving overseas in World War II, Snyder worked with renowned U.S. code breaker William Friedman to break Japanese military codes delivered to the agency from Switzerland.

Towards the end of the war, Snyder and his partners had successfully deciphered every Japanese code that came through – a feat that “is believed to have directly contributed to shortening the war by at least one year,” according to the National Security Agency.

Snyder’s accomplishments and contributions were not exclusive to the war. At SIS, which soon became the National Security Agency, Snyder worked to determine if the computers that had helped decode Axis information would be useful for other NSA objectives. Snyder’s conclusion that computers were integral to the agency led the NSA to become the “leading computing industry on earth,” Sol said.

After 30 years at the NSA, Snyder joined the Library of Congress, where he helped develop the library’s Machine Readable Cataloging system, now the standard electronic database system for libraries worldwide.

For his illustrious career, Snyder received the Defense Department’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award, was inducted into the National Security Agency’s Central Security Service Hall of Honor, and a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. He was also a co-author of “Man and the Computer,” a book published in 1972.

Among his many accomplishments, Sol notes that one of his father’s greatest honors was being selected as the Washington Post Ideal Father of the Year in 1949. In a letter to the Post petitioning for Snyder’s election, Sol’s older sister, then-12 year old Elaine, described her father in detail: “Our pop is these things: mathematician, artist, scientist, house cleaner, sewer, dog harness maker, dog bather, can play the clarinet, saxophone, piccolo, story writer, best father in the world, we think.”

Sol recalls that his father spent his most recent years basking in his passion for music. He is fondly remembered by four children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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