Mein Enigma

The World War II German Enigma encoding machine is something of an icon in engineering circles not just for its mechanical ingenuity but for the work of the wartime staff at Bletchley Park in decoding its messages. Without it we would not have had Colossus, the first programmable digital electronic computer, and subsequent technological developments might have taken a slower pace towards what we take for granted today.

Sadly for the Enigma enthusiast though, real machines are now few and far between. Our grandparents’ generation saw to that through the chaos and bombing of the fight across Europe. If you want to handle one you will have to either have an outrageous amount of money, work for a museum, or maybe for the GCHQ archivist.

This has not stopped our community building Enigma replicas, and the latest one to come to our attention here at Hackaday shows some promise. [lpaseen]’s meinEnigma is an electronic Enigma driven by an Arduino Nano, with rotary encoders to represent the Enigma rotors and multi-segment alphanumeric displays standing in for the lighted letters in the original. It supports all the different variations of rotors from the original in software, has a physical plugboard, and a serial port over USB through which all machine functions can be controlled. The machine as it stands is a fully working prototype, the plan is that a final machine will resemble the original as closely as possible.

All the code used in the project can be found on GitHub, along with [lpaseen]’s Arduino library for the Holtek HT16K33 keyboard/display chip used to handle those tasks.

We’ve featured a few Enigma machines on Hackaday over the years. One was built into a wristwatch, another into a hacked child’s toy, but the closest in aim to [lpaseen]’s offering is this rather attractive replica also driven by an Arduino. It is also worth mentioning that should your travels ever take you to Buckinghamshire you can visit the Bletchley Park Museum and neighboring  National Museum of Computing, to get the Enigma and Colossus story from the source.

31 thoughts on “Mein Enigma

    1. And, in the US, you can see Enigmas (and more) at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, or the National Cryptologic (NSA) Museum, just outside the NSA gates in Maryland. I highly recommend both museums, but the gift shop at the NSA museum should not be missed.

    1. I’m not sure. Used as “riddle” enigma is neuter I think because it is of greek origin ending in “ma”, like “das thema”. I’m not certain if appropriation for a name changes this. ( disclaimer, I’m not German, but I can see Germany from my backyard )

  1. Quote: “You are both right. Duden lists Enigma with the description “riddle” as neuter while the Wikipedia entry about the machine uses feminine articles.”

    So a word can be neuter or feminine depending on the meaning? I’m starting to understand why Mark Twain wrote “The Awful German Language.” Here is a quote:

    Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it.

    Read it. It’s one of Twain’s hilarious best.

    Incidentally, English, being a Germanic language, was once like that. Centuries of battling other languages (i.e. Latin, Norse and Norman French) for dominance in England forced it to simplify and become much easier to learn, with all that masculine, feminine, and neuter nonsense removed. Those who’d like to know more might want to listen to the marvelous, five-star-rated “The History of English Podcast.”

    Also available on iTunes and elsewhere.

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books

    1. Ah, stuff about language.. I like that.

      Personally I really like the German language and although I’m quite proficient in communicating in German, I make a lot of mistakes anyway. This however never is a problem in Germany, I’ve never been corrected for a mistake and the people generally simply like that I make the effort to speak it.

      I am still a bit puzzled why the enigma machine is feminine. I can’t seem to find a rule or an exception that clarifies this. It just seems to be.. very untypical for German in my experience!. Could it be that the fact that the enigma IS a machine and therefor takes the gender of machine which is feminine?

      1. There is no rule to the gender used for “things” in German. Even things that obviously have a gender might have a completely different linguistic gender. An often made mistake is to use the female form when referring to a “Mädchen” (girl) from a previous sentence.

        There are also nouns that are often used with the wrong gender. “Filter” (same as in English) comes to mind. People who write technical texts treat it as neuter, everyone else as male.

        Arguing that the Enigma inherited its gender from “Maschine” sounds plausible. But “Gerät” (device) is neuter and “Apparat” (apparatus) is male.

    2. Languages, like French, which are practically two different languages mushed together, with most of a sentence being different depending upon whether the subject is “feminine” or “masculine” or if it’s a female or male person. IIRC, in Spanish, there are also different words used to say *exactly the same thing* to or about a boy, girl, man or woman.

      English has pitched all that craziness so that only the subject needs changed. “That’s a large, green .”

      What’s even weirder about Spanish is that sometimes the syntax is like English with (for example) adjectives first “Wet floor.” but other times it’s back-asswards “Piso mojado.” which literally translates to “Floor wet.”. One may see examples anywhere there are signs with the same thing in English and Spanish. Read one pair of sentences and the positions of the nouns etc pretty well match up, then for another pair the Spanish is backwards. “WHY?! Why is one backwards and the other not? How am I supposed to know when and when not to invert Spanish syntax from English? Why is Spanish like Yoda but only part time?”

      At times it’s so mixed up that it must alert the reader ahead of time that a sentence is a question or exclamation with an inverted ? or ! at the beginning.

  2. Historical accuracy won’t hurt a technical topic. Enigma was broken in Biuro Szyfrów near Warsaw, Poland by the team of Rejewski, Różycki and Zygalski. They applied mathematics, not linguistics, to code breaking for the first time in history. They have also built “bomba”, the mechanical deciphering machine which they used rutinely to crack German messages before the Germans strengthened the encryption in preparation for the war. The Bletchley team scaled up Polish methods. Their work, together with “bomba” was passed in 1939 to the French and British. Source: “The Code Book” by Simon SIngh.

  3. The scarcity of surviving military Enigma machines after World War II was not due to the general mayhem of war. Machines in the hands of Germans were routinely deliberately destroyed before surrender. Virtually all of the machines in Allied hands (almost entirely British) were destroyed along with the celebrated “bombes” and the original Colossus because Churchill feared the likely Labor government would hand them over to the Communist East.

  4. “Our grandparents’ generation saw to that through the chaos and bombing of the fight across Europe.” A Fascist-Socialist named Adolph Hitler saw to that, NOT our “Grandparents’ Generation”. And how do you know I’m one of those Grandparents or not – you Ageist twit!?

    1. Several original Enigma machines were at the Crypto Symposium in March. Along with other crypto machines (Fialka, NEMA, M-209, etc.) they were all on full display, ready for attendees to examine and operate. There was also a reproduction machine that worked quite well.

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