The Enigma Machine

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The Enigma Machine

By Alexander Lim, GIS Student

World War 2 was a horrific event in history, filled with mass murders, constant fear, and one of the most insane leaders of a country who did the unspeakable. During the war, communication was key to success and coordinated attacks. However, with all of the alternate ways to hack and access these communication lines, trying to send messages or saying anything at all could be heard by enemy forces. This came to become one of the most intelligent weapons used for communication that man has ever created: The Enigma.

The Second World War took place in a period of industrialization. As a result, more new technologies and weapons were being made which the world had never seen before. One of these new technologies was the radio. With this extremely powerful piece of equipment, you could send messages that would be heard miles and miles away. Both Allies and Germans utilized this, making it much more convenient to convey strategies or tactics to flank the opposition. Both sides sent messages in the radio via Morse Code. However, because Morse Code became so commonly used a lot of the time both Allies and Germans would try to intercept the line to sap as much information as possible. This is what led to the creation of the Enigma.

The Enigma was a machine designed by the Germans to encrypt messages in the most unhackable way possible, by randomizing the letters typed into a mix of jumbled words. The Enigma did this by changing the algorithm constantly, so if you typed “Y” the first time, you might get a “G” however, if you typed “Y” again you could get a “O” in the code instead. This made the job of a decrypter extremely difficult, as there was never a set pattern of fake letters that corresponded with the real letters. This was only the start, though. The Germans knew that if they stayed with the same setup the British would eventually find out how to crack the code, so they added more variables. The machine had 3 rotors that changed numbers frequently to randomize letters. Each of these rotors had 26 combinations in itself to begin from. These settings were frequently changed to ensure protection from any suspicion or leads. In addition, they also had a wire board below which connected certain letters to follow another path of wiring. Enigma Codebreakers in the modern day estimated that there would be over 15,000,000,000,000,000,000 ways to code an Enigma machine! With an essentially infinite amount of unique combinations, the German Enigma was almost impossible to break into. Almost.

Britain needed to find a way to intercept and decode these messages- fast. They assembled a team of extremely brilliant scientists and mathematicians in a desperate attempt to break the Enigma Code. One of these scientists went by the name of Alan Turing, an extremely talented mathematician. He, alongside the help of Gordon Welchman were the ones who eventually found a way to crack the Enigma Code, using a machine known as the “Bombe”. How did it work? Well, the Bombe in a nutshell forcefully searched through the millions of billions of letter combinations using hints and tiny flaws in the Enigma’s system. The machine was extremely complicated, with over 12 miles of wiring and 97,000 parts! All of this was taking place in Bletchley Park, an area so secretive the Germans had no idea that the British were decoding their messages! The British couldn’t have done it without the Germans though. The Enigma had flaws of it’s own as well. For starters, there had to be a sheet of paper sent monthly to the Germans so that they could adjust their Enigma machines to the correct setting. These people who were distributing the letters were at a high risk, as the person might be incompetent, a double agent etc.

Both of these inventions were a testament to technology as we know it. For example, similar patterns of the encryption that the Enigma used are in banks because of the complexity of variables and choice. The Bombe is crude, but noticeably effective for hackers as most will try to find passwords through crunching millions of potential words or phrases. This is why many big companies will always ask to add numbers or symbols to your password to prevent these sort of events from happening. Both of these inventions contributed a lot to society and has shaped security as we know it. If the Enigma or the Bombe hadn’t existed, who knows what would’ve happen today?

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