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History of the Enigma Machine

About 1918, Albert Scherbius took his idea of the "rotating rotors" in a cipher machine to the German military. They weren't interested in his ideas at that point in time so Scherbius took his idea to a German company called Gewerkschaft Securitas. That company bought his patents. The first Enigma machine was produced in the early 1920's. It was an electrical enciphering machine which provided "better" encryptions of messages than other machines at the time because of the rotating rotors.

The German Navy started buying Enigma machines in 1925 and they started to modify it. The German Army soon followed suit and they also modified the machine. Some of the modifications included adding or deleting some keys, the addition of the plug board and using more than three rotors.

The Germans placed a lot of confidence in the security of the Enigma machine because they thought that the probability of breaking a message would be too great for their enemies. They did have certain procedures on the operation of the machine. The Germans had manuals that the operator used to set the parameters of the machine for each day.

Contrary to the belief of the Germans, the Enigma machine was not secure. The number of possible encryptions was quite large but Polish mathematicians worked on breaking the systems. They obtained several Enigma machines and code books from captured U-boats. Through the confiscated Enigma machines, and some developed machines, the mathematicians were able to break the codes. When Poland was invaded by the Germans, the mathematicians provided the British and the Americans with their work. The Germans resorted to more sophisticated Enigma machines using four rotors but by 1943, the codes were broken with some consistency.

How does the Enigma work?

The Enigma machine was a simple cipher machine. It had several components: a plug board, a light board, a keyboard, a set of rotors, and a reflector (half rotor). The original machine looked a lot like a typewriter.
The machine has several variable settings that affect the operation of the machine. The user must select three rotors from a set of rotors to be used in the machine. A rotor contains one-to-one mappings of all the letters. Some Enigma machines had more than 3 rotors which just added to the number of possible encryption combinations. The other variable element in the machine is the plug board. The plug board allowed for pairs of letters to be remapped before the encryption process started and after it ended.

When a key is pressed, an electrical current is sent through the machine. The current first passes through the plug board, then through the three rotors, through the reflector which reverses the current, back through the three rotors, back through the plug board and then the encrypted letter is lit on the display. After the display is lit up, the rotors rotate. The rotors rotate similar to an odometer where the right most rotor must complete one revolution before the middle rotor rotated one position and so on.

As the current passes through each component in the Enigma machine, the letter gets remapped to another letter. The plug board performed the first remapping. If there is a connection between two letters, the letters are remapped to each other. For example if there is a connection between "A" and "F", "A" would get remapped to "F" and "F" would get remapped to "A". If this isn't a connection for a particular letter, the letter doesn't get remapped. After the plug board, the letters are remapped through the rotors. Each rotor contains one-to-one mappings of letters but since the rotors rotate on each key press, the mappings of the rotors change on every key press. Once the current passes through the rotors, it goes into the reflector. The reflector is very similar to a rotor except that it doesn't rotate so the one-to-one mappings are always the same. The whole encryption process for a single letter contains a minimum of 7 remappings (the current passes through the rotors twice) and a maximum of 9 remappings (if the letter has a connection in the plug board).

In order to decrypt a message, the receiver must have the encrypted message, and know which rotors were used, the connections on the plug board and the initial settings of the rotors. To decrypt a message, the receiver would set up the machine identically to the way the sender initially had it and would type in the encrypted message. The output of typing in the encrypted message would be the original message. Without the knowledge of the state of the machine when the original message was typed in, it is extremely difficult to decode a message.

Other Encryption Machines (courtesy of

3 Wheel Army/Air Force Enigma

3 Wheel Navy Enigma

4 Wheel Navy enigma

Introduction to Virtual Colossus (You need to print this before attempting to use the virtual colossus)

Virtual Colossus Machine



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