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Chicago, Part 4: Enigma

The events and artifacts of World War II fascinate me.  Not World War I, not Korea, not Vietnam, not even the war of the greatest import to my family, but World War II.  I still smile knowing we lived only a few blocks down the street from the D-Day World War II museum in New Orleans (incidentally, Jonah Langenbeck is the museum’s new Interactive Media Manager).  As my father-in-law, an American veteran of a foreign war, likes to say, “There is no such thing as a good war” and 1945 saw many sad, large, global messes in the name of victory, but I have nothing but awe for that era in world history.

The technology generated and used in World War II, that are still in use to this day, boggles the mind.  Radar, sonar, jet engines, rocket propulsion, nuclear fission and, most important to me, encryption and code-breaking.  So, imagine my surprise when D tapped me on the shoulder, pointed down the way to a collection of what looked like old, skinny typewriters and said, “Hey, you might want to take a look at those.”  In a large glass display case, on the starboard side of the U-505, sat naval Enigma machines recovered from the sub!  This one is probably a rare M3 with a ticker printer on top (the display’s captions aren’t too helpful).

Hope you like these pictures because it took me 20 minutes to get them (and the others in the set), I lost D And The Gang in the process and a search party was sent out to find me – sorry!  Crypotography is damned cool and how often does one get the opportunity to stare lovingly at a well-preserved Enigma machine?   Of course, my love for and comprehension of this topic  is … well, let’s just say I’m a dwarf standing on the shoulder of über-dorks.  I close this post by turning it over to Neal Stephenson, in his letter to mathematician Mike Anshel:

… As you know better than I, the Riemann Zeta function has been, and continues to be, of intense interest to mathematicians. During the 1930s, Alan Turing went so far as to build a mechanical device for calculating its values. This dovetails naturally with one of the chief themes of my novel [Cryptonomicon], which is the early history of the computer. So, in the book, I have invented two fictitious characters, Rudolf von Hacklheber and Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, both mathematicians who (so the story goes) befriend Turing at Princeton shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

A few years later, at the height of the war, von Hacklheber (who by this point has gone back to his homeland of Germany and has ended up working as a cryptographer for the Nazi regime) needs to invent a wholly original cryptosystem that has nothing in common with the Enigma, which he suspects has been been compromised. The system he comes up with, which is dubbed Arethusa, makes use of zeta functions. It is computationally intensive by the standards of the 1940’s, but this problem is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that, as a result of having helped Turing work on his zeta function computer at Princeton, von Hacklheber knows how to build a device that will automate many of the calculations.

1 comment… add one
  • Ian Turton August 21, 2009, 1:51 PM

    If you like cryptography and enigma machines you need to visit the NSA museum at Fort Mead, MD. http://www.nsa.gov/about/cryptologic_heritage/museum/ – it is fantastic (though Lesley was a bit bored after the first hour :-)). They have a collection of enigma machines (including a Japanese one) as well as a Naval Bombe which was used for decoding them. They also have a Cray-YP and a Connection Machine and other cool machines I could point to and say I used one of those. Plus it’s next door to the National Vigilance Park which has a bunch of spy planes in it.

    see http://www.flickr.com/photos/ianturton/tags/nationalcryptographymuseum/ for my pictures of the museum.

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