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Encryption Technology

The Machines That Sparked the Beginning of the Computer Age 139

jjp9999 writes "A war of spies and electromechanical machines that took place beneath the wires during World War II not only played a crucial role in the Allies' victory, but also helped spark the beginning of the computer age. Among the devices was the Enigma, a cipher capable of producing 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible code combinations, and a hulking machine, the Colossus, the first programmable electronic computer, capable of decoding the Enigma."
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The Machines That Sparked the Beginning of the Computer Age

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  • by jhoegl ( 638955 ) on Monday May 30, 2011 @10:00PM (#36292362)
    Seriously, everyone who is a computer geek/nerd/dork/wannabe knows this.
    • who the hell wants to be a computer?

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward


      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Whether they wanted to be or not, plenty of men and women were computers during WWII. The machines of the war helped to change the meaning of the word from "A person who makes calculations or computations" to today's exclusive meaning as an electronic computing device.

      • Wow, we really have come full circle now. link []

    • by rssrss ( 686344 ) on Monday May 30, 2011 @11:17PM (#36292792)

      But, this does give us a chance to recommend the excellent biography of Alan Turing which explains his role in the evolution of computer science and his role in breaking the German cyphers:

      "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges []

    • the real 'pioneers of computers' were the Census machines, and the vast bureaucracies like the Social Security Administration.

      and yes, even the machines in the Nazi concentration camps, which IBM Germany worked on.

      dare i mention that the Soviet Union was a huge punch card customer through the 1930s?

      and that punch card machines are, well, basically, like gigantic electromechanical SQL devices?

      oh, and the Japanese fascists were pretty good customers too.


      but of course, lets forget about all that. everyone

    • My photographic memory film isn't always loaded, so it's nice to be reminded of this again :)

      Nerd = derogatory and not necessarily a geek.
      Dork = slang for a penis.
      Wannabe = someone pretending they know everything and thus so should everybody else.

  • by cold fjord ( 826450 ) on Monday May 30, 2011 @10:02PM (#36292376)

    In these discussions it is common to overlook Sigaba [], the American encryption machine that was significantly more secure than Enigma.

    SIGABA was similar to the Enigma in basic theory, in that it used a series of rotors to encipher every character of the plaintext into a different character of ciphertext. Unlike Enigma's three rotors however, the SIGABA included fifteen, and did not use a reflecting rotor.

    Electronic Cipher Machine (ECM) Mark II []

    The ECM Mark II based cryptographic system is not known to have ever been broken by an enemy and was secure throughout WW II. The system was retired by the U.S. Navy in 1959 because it was too slow to meet the demands of modern naval communications. Axis powers (primarily Germany) did however periodically break the lower grade systems used by Allied forces. Early in the war (notably during the convoy battle of the Atlantic and the North Africa campaign) the breaking of Allied systems contributed to Axis success.

    Cryptanalysis of the SIGABA --- 3.4 Stepping Maze []

    While other rotor-based cryptosystems tended to rotate their rotors as an odometer (with the last rotor moving one position per letter, and each other rotor moving one position when the rotor after it completes a full cycle), the SIGABA introduces
    an innovative concept. The movement of its cipher rotors depend on the two other rotor banks, collectively known as the stepping maze. The output of the stepping maze is not seen directly, but rather controls the movements of the cipher rotors. Thus, the SIGABA uses a hidden cryptosystem within another cryptosystem.

    The Germans that beat their heads against it referred to it as, "The big machine".

    • by artor3 ( 1344997 )

      Wow, I wish I had mod points. That's way more interesting than TFA. Plus, while everyone with a high school education has probably heard about Enigma, I at least had never heard of Sigaba.

    • Thanks for that, I've never heard anything about the American crypto from the 30s or 40s.

      • by AHuxley ( 892839 ) on Tuesday May 31, 2011 @03:51AM (#36294174) Journal
        The US had networks of rich trustafarian like elites feeding back news pre ww2 and the US gov liked to read all text flowing via its private telco network ie Room 641A like.
        SIGABA was not that great, in great poverty, post ww2, England was able to tell the US of its workings in 1947 and hinted they had used some of the SIGABA ideas. The US was shocked as they thought they had "made in the USA" crypto perfection. The UK suggested working together on a better system, to cut costs in replacing its own Typex as SIGABA was in the past.
        The US said no, then Korea and the NSA changed everything.
        The US finally got crypto in the 1950's and its greatest gift to the world has been ensuring all export quality codes and devices used by friends and other nations where well known to the USA.
    • by ortholattice ( 175065 ) on Tuesday May 31, 2011 @02:07AM (#36293712)
      One of the oddest things I saw in the Wikipedia article was "SIGABA is described in U.S. Patent 6,175,625, filed in 1944 but not issued until 2001". I wonder if that is some kind of record.
      • by kmoser ( 1469707 )
        They mailed the patent application in 1944 but it took the USPS over 50 years to deliver it.
    • How interesting!

      This morning I got sidetracked into a past code breaking challenge that involved a substitution cipher. []

      Sigaba seems like a 1-digit substitution cipher implemented on a complex rotor system.

  • In other news, Superman comics paved the way for other comics, Thomas Edison was a really awesome inventor, and the quantum world is often strange.

    Seriously, how did this get on to the main page. There is no NEWS here...
    • This either not a news, or you are not a nerd.
    • by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Monday May 30, 2011 @11:32PM (#36292866) Homepage Journal

      Thomas Edison was a really awesome inventor

      Thomas A. Edison was a really awesome businessman, opportunist, and quite possibly the world's first patent troll. Very few of the inventions he has been credited for were actually invented by him, the person. Sometimes by employees of Edison, and sometimes these were foreign inventions, bought or outright filched, and then patented in the US by Edison.

      • by Renraku ( 518261 )

        He was just the first successful patent troll. Patent trolling had become all the rage around that time and a lot of 'old money' today was born from little patents here, little patents there, etc.

      • Just this weekend I learned via a BBC documentary that the only reason Hollywood exists was because of the desire of New York filmmakers to get as far away as possible from Edison's patent enforcement (often through the use of hired goons to smash up equipment).

        I found it interesting that in the history of two of the biggest forms of mass media, recorded sound and cinema, Edison was there at the outset, yet his aggressive pursuit of patent infringement meant that people were forced to look elsewhere and h
      • Sometimes by employees of Edison, and sometimes these were foreign inventions, bought or outright filched, and then patented in the US by Edison.

        So we can agree that he invented patent trolling?

      • by npsimons ( 32752 ) *

        Thomas A. Edison was a really awesome businessman, opportunist, and quite possibly the world's first patent troll. Very few of the inventions he has been credited for were actually invented by him, the person. Sometimes by employees of Edison, and sometimes these were foreign inventions, bought or outright filched, and then patented in the US by Edison.

        So pretty much like Gates and Jobs then?

    • by GrahamCox ( 741991 ) on Monday May 30, 2011 @11:45PM (#36292962) Homepage
      Thomas Edison was a really awesome inventor

      No, he wasn't. You've fallen for the hype (mostly created by Thos. Edison himself).
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 30, 2011 @10:29PM (#36292532)

    IIRC Colossus was used to break the Lorenz ciphers, not Enigma. BP were using the Bombs with menus for Enigma.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Oops, that should have been "bombe" not "bomb". Good info here:

  • Colossus was listed, but why not Colosson []?
  • by PPH ( 736903 )

    For those who want to do a bit more reading on the subject (of the Bombe machines, Colossus, etc.), there's Colussus: Bletchley Park's Greatest Secret [] by P. Gannon.

  • Speaking of Enigma (or SIGABA from a previous post), does someone knows any good emulator/decoder for Enigma on linux ? I found this [] but it is a bit too visual for me (you have to drag and drop the rotors yourself, etc), it doesn't decode and it is for windows.

    I'm more interrested in an open source command line tool, with decoding abilities.

  • by peterofoz ( 1038508 ) on Monday May 30, 2011 @10:51PM (#36292660) Homepage Journal
    Anyone who is serious about computing should watch this Connections episode by James Burke that takes you from the water wheel and jacquard loom to modern day computing. Its simply amazing.

    Connections - Episode 4 - "Faith in Numbers" []

    • by Anrego ( 830717 ) *

      The Connections series is indeed timeless! They need to start making documentaries like that again... with real scientists/historians and not actors reading lines... and the assumption that the audience has an IQ of at least room temperature. Also the production values of that series are still impressive by today's standards. It blows my mind how they seem to have constructed entire elaborate sets with lots of extras and costume, just for these 10 second clips between segments. Just James Burke talking in f

      • Agreed. Connections (the original, not Connections II) and a few of others (The Ascent of Man by Jacob Branowski) set the bar for what really educational TV should be like.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          Ahh... Back when The Learning Channel was actually about learning...

          The most fun part (until you've seen an episode already) was trying to guess where it would go next when the next connection was coming in a series. In a way it was like trying to play along with Jeopardy, but in a historical timeline/storyline form. It was also neat when they'd do the jump-back sections with seemingly unrelated stuff in order to do the A+B=C things that they'd occasionally throw in.

          I do kind of miss shows like that. They w

          • I have no idea why this comment was modded down. I,too, enjoyed TLC before it became the "Paint Your House" channel. James Burke will always be a on a pedestal for me. He had other series and books besides "Connections". Pick up a copy of the "Pinball Effect" and you'll be mesmerized for hours reading and re-reading his prose.

            There's still hope for good programming. Unfortunately, it's not coming from network or cable tv. I've setting IPTV. TWIT.TV and Revision3 are highly bookmarked on my system.

            Now, how d

    • Best comment I've seen all month. lol
    • Thank you for that; I had not thought about the possibility of Connections being on YouTube (silly me). These things are still surprisingly enthralling . . .
    • I love those old 80's docos and their huge lapels!
      Much better quality than what passes for a lot of docos these days.

  • While Colossus may have been capable of breaking Enigma (though it is not sure, as it was a highly specialized computer), it was actually used for breaking another, more sophisticated cipher produced by a Lorenz-made machine connected to a telex machine. When encoding, the telex machine emitted a 5-bit code, which was encrypted using the Lorenz machine. For decoding the process was reversed. This type of traffic was called Fish or Tunny in Bletchley Park.

    • It is slightly embarrassing (especially in light of all the "Don't nerds know this already?" traffic upthread) that yours is the first comment I've seen to mention this.

    • Would this have been possible? My understanding was that Colossus was essentially a solid state Lorenz with some statistical analysis electronics.
      • by ivaradi ( 194037 )

        Yes, the wheels of the Lorenz machine were simulated by some logical circuits made of vacuum tubes. But the book I read on the subject claimed, that the circuits were quite generic (some registers and logical operations), so if wired differently, one could make the computer to perform other combinations of operations. Of course breaking Enigma is quite a complicated matter, so it is entirely possible that Colossus was not flexible enough to be wired to do that.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Amazingly the article omits to tell us about Konrad Zuze:

    "Konrad Zuse (German pronunciation: [knat tsuz]; 22 June 1910 Berlin – 18 December 1995 Hünfeld near Fulda) was a German engineer and computer pioneer. His greatest achievement was the world's first functional program-controlled Turing-complete computer, the Z3, which became operational in May 1941. He received the Werner-von-Siemens-Ring in 1964 for the Z3.[1] Much of his early work was financed by his family and commerce, but after 1939 h

    • I also find it totally amazing that Konrad Zuse's Z3 [] is always and consistently omitted by americans when it comes to determine which one was the first real computer. My guess is most of them simply don't know about the Zuse and the Z3. It's quite sad, because the achievements of this man are astounding.
      • It is an amazing device, but I think the reason it's omitted is that it didn't have a conditional branch, so although theoretically Turing-complete, it was in practice impossible to program and use in the same way as a modern computing device; i.e. it was effectively a very clever calculator. Later machines, e.g. ENIAC, were programable in the modern sense, even though initially using plugboards. I had always thought that Colossus wasn't a true programable computer, but having browsed around a few descrip
  • There is evidence that some of the first computers ever produced existed as far back as 150 BC, A device found in 1901, called the Antikythera mechanism, is a mechanical computing device believed to have been used to chart astronomical positions. It's overall design rivals the complexity of an early mechanical watch.

    Another fun item, the japanese Karakuri ningy, or clockwork doll. They are some of the earliest known examples of robotics, going back to the 17th century. The Karakuri ningy was primarily used

    • Another precursor of computer development is Konrad Zuse [] and his work on his Z serie of machine (a series of binary floating point computer with increasing programability, reaching peak with the Z3 being Turing complete).

      It's interesting because unlike all the precursors mentioned in TFA, it was not some secret monster developed by intelligence services to crack codes, but a publicly available project with practical industrial applications (to ease the massive calculation in some engineering fields).

    • It is actually a lot more complicated than a watch, though. It is an analogue time representation machine relying on planetary gear systems. It is also completely deterministic, i.e. it can be wound backwards as well as forwards, so it is in no sense a computer.

      However, its existence asks a big question - did the Roman Empire hold technical progress up for nearly 1500 years? It seems likely that it was the Roman takeover of the Hellenic world that put paid to the skills and thought needed to produce thing

      • The Roman empire did *not* hold progress up by 1500 years. The *collapse* of the Roman empire held it up by 1500 years.

        A *lot* of technological advance happened under the Romans, and perhaps some of the most obvious examples of it are their feats of construction and architecture. (both of which are practical applications of their advances in mathematics, physics, and chemistry). It's quite telling that aqueducts that they built 2000 years ago are still standing while some buildings less than 100 years old a

    • japanese Karakuri ningy, or clockwork doll.

      It's "ningyo" not "ningy".

  • A few bits of truth floating in a frothing stew of errors.

    As noted elsewhere, COLOSSUS was not used to break Enigma; it was designed to break the cipher of the Lorenz machine (Geheimschreiber). If the Allies had needed COLOSSUS to break Enigma, the war would have been much longer and bloodier. COLOSSUS was not even operational until February 1944. The Allies had re-broken Enigma in early 1940, by hand methods. They read the main Luftwaffe key (RED) from then until the end of the war. They read the main n
    • by fnj ( 64210 )

      Just to elaborate a little on your excellent summary, it wasn't the Allies who broke the Enigma ciphers, and it wasn't in 1940. The Polish Cipher bureau first did it in 1932. Then in 1939 they provided techniques and equipment (actual working reverse engineered Enigma machines, the reverse engineering being helped by theft of secrets) to French and British intelligence. Without that singular act, the war would have been longer, and gone worse for the Allies. And it certainly would have been longer and g

  • It's strange that an article with that headline says nothing about the postwar period. So here's what's missing.

    In the UK, Colossus was kept secret after the war. But the knowledge gained in its construction was used to develop the first British postwar computers [](the Manchester Baby, an experimental design, leading to the Ferranti Mk.1 commercial computer). Alan Turing and others who were involved with Colossus worked on the Manchester series.

    In the US, ENIAC was commissioned by the Army for ballistics cal

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      The US did truly amazing things with the codes used by Japan ~ around/before Pearl harbor. Let It Happen to cover the progress made and bring the US into the war... ? [] is also very interesting in pre/war war Germany and post war Switzerland.
      But who wants to read about the first functional program-controlled Turing-complete computer (1941)?
      Best to stick to Colossus, bombe, Enigma ect :)
  • Sadly yet another article that talks about collossus and seems to give all the credit to Alan Turing without mentioning the contribution of Tommy Flowers :(

    • ...and a whole lot of others. Turing would the last person to approve - he was notably modest about his own contributions. Flowers' contribution was that of a technology enabler - he identified ways that thermionic valves (tubes) could be made reliable (the main one being not switching the heaters on and off.) This was a very important contribution - but without Tutte, Turing and Newman there would have been nothing to contribute to.
  • by Peter Simpson ( 112887 ) on Tuesday May 31, 2011 @07:12AM (#36294990)
    It was designed to break the next German threat: encrypted radio teleprinter traffic...the Germans' version of SIGABA. []
  • The Enigma may have had 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 encodings which were theoretically possible before it was built, but, the actual real Enigma machines had quite a bit less. They had 3 rotors each with 26 positions and those three rotors were chosen (with some specific order) from a larger set of at most 7 (differing numbers depending on when in the war we're talking about and which branch of the German military). In addition, they used up to 2 patch cables. This gives a total number of possible encodi

    • They used more than 2 patch cables. 10 cables were supplied with the machine, and as of 1939, 7-10 cables were used. See e.g. here [], which arrives at 10^23 practically possible encodings.

    • I don't know if the math is dodgy but I do know the use of the Enigma was also a good example of how poor use of the device can lesson the effectiveness.

      Many of the messages sent between stations using the Enigma had similar sets of characters. For example, messages would end with praise to the fuhrer or start with something related to weather (that's two I can recall). This gave the allies a chance to have a known set of plain text and would greatly limit the problem space.

      I actually wrote an Enigma
  • From the article: "Work on the bombe was handed to Alan Turing, who was developing a concept of a computing device, the Turing Machine, capable of performing rapid calculations. " Don't you just love technical writing in the media?
  • Probably will never be known. I have - on and off - over time, been cobbling together bits and pieces (some experience, some plagiarism and some wit) to try to make a storyline - hopefully one that kids will find engaging. You can find it here... ( I welcome constructive criticism, and some good humours. David DelMonte
    • Probably will never be known. I have - on and off - over time, been cobbling together bits and pieces (some experience, some plagiarism and some wit) to try to make a storyline - hopefully one that kids will find engaging. You can find it here... ( I welcome constructive criticism, and some good humours. David DelMonte

      it would have been more helpful if I gave the exact link... []

  • Can thoroughly recommend a visit to [] which also houses The National Museum of Computing [] Of the codes generated by the 12 different ENIGMA-type machines used by the Germans, 2 were never broken. And finally, the museum is used as an intreresting location for corporate events and weddings.

APL hackers do it in the quad.