Of Codebreakers and Mechanical Giants

The World War II battle of machines that sparked the beginning of the computer age

The Enigma machines made their debut in short-lived peace, just following the first Great War. Enclosed in foldable wooden boxes, the devices featured series of protruding knobs and keys, resembling a cross between an antique typewriter and a laptop computer.

These were among the first ciphers, boxes capable of coding and decoding staggeringly complex communications. German electrical engineer Arthur Scherbius invented the Enigma machines in 1918, believing the banking industry would find them useful. He would find, however, the devices were too far ahead of their time.

What he had invented was one of the earliest machines capable of encrypting data, wrapping a message in countless layers of code and rendering it safe from prying eyes. The electromechanical device was created with a hope that machinery could create a code so complex that no human mind could ever crack it.

History, on the other hand, had other plans, heralding an age of electronic security, yet making the Enigma a stark reminder to today’s digital society that no system is completely secure.

The device has become a “silent sentinel to the folly of those who placed their absolute confidence in its security,” states a paper from Dr. A. Ray Miller, winner of the NSA’s highest award for computer science, the 1991 Computer and Information Sciences Institute Award for Excellence.

“But it also stands in renowned tribute to the cryptanalysts who pitted their minds against a problem of seemingly invincible odds and who scaled its lofty heights,” stated Miller.

War Machines

The quiet emergence of the Enigma caught little attention amid the thundering cries of nationalism echoing throughout Germany. As the devices fell to the wayside, however, they managed to catch the eye of Polish researchers aware of the devastating potential of the machines.

A group of researchers at the Polish Cipher Bureau obtained an Enigma machine and began attempts to crack a code believed to be unbreakable.

Doing so was by no means easy, as the Enigma machine was a mind-boggling maze of code, with 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible combinations. The devices also used a new form of encryption based on mathematics rather than language, thus “An understanding of letter frequency and linguistic patterns would not crack enigma encoded messages,” according to The National Archives of the U.K.

But, like all things, there was a flaw in the Enigma—no letter in the alphabet could represent itself in coded form. “Together with errors in sent messages and the German habit of using standard phrases at the start of each communication, this allowed cryptanalysts to establish informed ‘guesses,’” states The National Archives.

After several months of research, they found a solution in December 1932. By observing the wiring, stepping motion, and set up of the device, they were also able to devise a machine of their own to decode it. They created a hulking, electromechanical machine known as the “bombe.”

Read the full story here.