During World War II, there were secret groups of scientists and mathematicians in various countries who worked nonstop on projects designed to thwart the Germans and their allies and to help end the war. Of these schemes, the most familiar one for Americans is the Manhattan Project, the research and development program that infamously produced the first atomic bombs. After the USA dropped two bombs in Japan, on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war was effectively over.
But before that, scientists in the UK at a small facility in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, were doing their part to help the war effort. Their work is less known, but arguably equally as important as the work done on the Manhattan Project (and with much less unintended consequences for the future). These scientists were given the almost insurmountable task of deciphering the secret code used by the Nazis to communicate with each other.
The Germans had developed a nearly unbreakable code by using Enigma cypher machines. On its website, the BBC describes the Enigma machine:
“Enigma allowed an operator to type in a message, then scramble it by using three to five notched wheels, or rotors, which displayed different letters of the alphabet. The receiver needed to know the exact settings of these rotors in order to reconstitute the coded text. Over the years the basic machine became more complicated as German code experts added plugs with electronic circuits.”
Many if not most of these machines are found in museums around the world. So it was with great interest when we ran across today’s remarkable find, this Original Enigma Cipher machine WWII period:
The listing gives further details:
“This is an auction for an original Enigma Cipher machine, famous for message encryptation used in WWII.
It is the 3 rotors army version. Electric core, three aluminium rotors, raised ‘QWERTZ’ keyboard with crackle black painted metal case,
plugboard in the front with ten patch leads, in wooden carrying case.
13¼ x 11 x 6in. (34 x 28 x 15cm.)
It was found with the number plate removed from the wooden box.
It is in a very good condition, and all functional.”
The machine is located in Hamburg, Germany, but the seller is happy to ship worldwide. This item has created quite a stir, with many eBay watchers. So far there have been only two bidders, and the high price is $33,100.
It is interesting to read that the machine is still functional – it would certainly give the buyer an opportunity to create some very interesting secret notes (to pass in the classroom, of course…), if nothing else!
Indeed, the Germans were so confident that the codes created by the Enigma machine were unbreakable that they used them ceaselessly to communicate with each other. As with any device, though, the code is only as good as the humans operating the machine, and the operators got sloppy. Over time, and with the use of an early computer prototype dubbed the “bombes,” the scientists were able to crack the Enigma codes.
For a great explanation and even a chance to see the bombes in action, take a look at this video:
According to an article from the US National Security Agency (here – pdf), the decryption of German ciphers, specifically from Enigma machines, hastened the end of the World War II in Europe by about two years.
Even today, we are amazed by those selfless individuals who worked in intense secrecy in England to help end the war more quickly. If you’d like to know what they were up against, or just want to own a piece of history, get bidding now!