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.
What would you get it you mashed up an FPGA and an Arduino? An FPGA development board with far too few output pins? Or a board in the form-factor of Arduino that’s impossible to program?
Fortunately, the ICEZUM Alhambra looks like it’s avoided these pitfalls, at least for the most part. It’s based on the Lattice iCE40 FPGA, which we’ve covered previously a number of times because of its cheap development boards and open-source development flow. Indeed, we were wondering what the BQ folks were up to when they were working on an easy-to-use GUI for the FPGA family. Now we know — it’s the support software for an FPGA “Arduino”.
The Alhambra board itself looks to be Arduino-compatible, with the horrible gap between the rows on the left-hand-side and all, so it will work with your existing shields. But they’ve also doubled them with pinheaders in a more hacker-friendly layout: SVG — signal, voltage, ground. This is great for attaching small, powered sensors using a three-wire cable like the one that you use for servos. (Hackaday.io has two Arduino clones using SVG pinouts: in SMT and DIP formats.)
The iCE40 FPGA has 144 pins, so you’re probably asking yourself where they all end up, and frankly, so are we. There are eight user LEDs on the board, plus the 28 I/O pins that end in pinheaders. That leaves around a hundred potential I/Os unaccounted-for. One of the main attractions of FPGAs in our book is the tremendous availability of fast I/Os. Still, it’s more I/O than you get on a plain-vanilla Arduino, so we’re not complaining too loudly. Sometimes simplicity is a virtue. Everything’s up on GitHub, but not yet ported to KiCad, so you can tweak the hardware if you’ve got a copy of Altium.
We’ve been seeing FPGA projects popping up all over, and with the open-source toolchains making them more accessible, we wonder if they will get mainstreamed; the lure of reconfigurable hardware is just so strong. Putting an FPGA into an Arduino-compatible form-factor and backing it with an open GUI is an interesting idea. This project is clearly in its very early stages, but we can’t wait to see how it shakes out. If anyone gets their hands on these boards, let us know, OK?
Thanks [RS] for the tip!