VCF East: Enigma Machines In The Flesh

At the end of World War II, the Germans ordered all Enigma cipher machines destroyed. Around the same time, Churchill ordered all Enigma cipher machines destroyed. Add a few decades, neglect the efforts of Polish codebreakers, and make a movie about Alan Turing and an offensively historically incorrect love interest, and you have a mystique around these rare, innovative cipher machine.

At the Vintage Computer Festival East, I was privy to what is probably the largest collection of Enigma machines on the planet. The exhibit comes from [Tom] and [Dan Perera] of Enigma Museum. Right now, they’re they only place where you can go out and simply buy a real, wartime Enigma machine. The price? Well, there is a pair of million-dollar Apple I boards at VCF. The Enigmas go for about a fifth of an Apple I.

Most Enigma machines were destroyed at the end of the war by the most expedient possible means. This could mean throwing the machines into a lake, into a fire, or simply shooting them. Still, there are a few survivors, but most look something like this:

Fortunately, [Tom] and [Dan] restore Enigma machines. Their bread and butter comes from repairing battlefield finds, bringing them back to operational condition, and selling them. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but with the price these things fetch it is worth it.

Somewhat surprisingly, rotor-based code wheel technology didn’t stop advancing in 1945, and the Enigma Museum has the machine to prove it. There were two post-war Enigma-ish machines also on display, one from the Swiss, and one from the Soviets.

The Swiss NEMA cipher machine was first produced in 1947 and used through the cold war. This machine used four rotors and improved the Enigma design by irregular stepping of these rotors. This machine could also be connected to a teletype machine.

The Soviet efforts to reverse engineer the Enigma machine resulted in the M-125 Fialka cipher machine. This machine used ten rotors, with adjacent rotors turning in opposite directions. The Fialka was used by all Warsaw Pact countries until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

12 thoughts on “VCF East: Enigma Machines In The Flesh

  1. The MIT Flea Market has had an Enigma display for years. I remember one of the first years it was on display and it was in pretty decent shape but missing a rotor wheel. I don’t think it’s been around the last year or two, but the Gemini test vehicle is on display now.

  2. I’m not sure about Churchill ordering all the Enigma machines destroyed. He did order all the Bombes and Collosi destroyed, thought there is some evidence that two got commandeered by fledgling GCHQ. I’m planning a return visit to Bletchley Park this year so will try and remember to ask them.

  3. What I heard/read somewhere was the Allies made a great show of Enigma machine destruction, implying that it was a dangerous unbreakable technology, meanwhile letting the South Americans and 3rd World get their hands on as many as they could.

    Beware of course of relying on any pre-70s public sources on the matter because it was still Top Secret classified until then.

    1. Oh yah, besides letting ex 3rd Reich machines trickle out to people they wanted to listen to, this performance also ensured the Spanish, Swiss and others carried on using the machines they had bought from Germany, plus allowed those using the commercial variant to still feel fairly safe, which a lot of countries had deployed in their govt, diplomatic and military infrastructure.

  4. If you’re ever in the UK, I can recommend a visit to Bletchley Park – the home of British code breaking efforts in WWII. Fascinating! Can’t pretend I understood all the technicalities but what they achieved there was incredible. Also, “The Code Book” by Simon Singh contains a great, idiot-proof explanation of the Enigma machine. As an idiot, I can vouch for this.

    1. Likewise, if you’re in the East Coast US, stopping by the National Crypto Museum at the NSA on Fort Meade, MD is worth a stop. They have an Enigma that you can actually play around with, along with some other neat stuff. It won’t take more than an hour or two to see everything, but it’s free.

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