Secrets & Sabotage: Hands-on with the Nazi Enigma Machine

April 27, 2017
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Tom Perera, right, displays two models of the Enigma cipher machine. The one in the forefront of the photo was turned on and running for observers at InfoAge. Photos by Ben Forest

By Ben Forest |

“Everything written about World War II before the 1970s is basically wrong. The breaking of the Enigma machine code changed the course of the war,” Tom Perera, Ph.D., told the packed gathering at the keynote presentation of the annual Vintage Computer Festival held April 1 and 2 at the former Fort Monmouth “Camp Evans” in Wall Township.

“Inside the Enigma: The history, technology and the real story behind The Imitation Game” was the theme of the keynote presented by Perera and his son Dan. They are the principles behind EnigmaMuseum.com, a for-profit company with an online museum dedicated to locating, restoring, preserving, and trading German Enigma machines, as well as other antique communications devices. The elder Perera is a former professor of neuroscience at Columbia University, Barnard College, and Montclair State University.

“The most important use of the Enigma was on the German U-boats,” said Perera. “Every submarine had one. During the war, submarines were deadly. They sank 3,000 ships and killed 150,000 men. Fifteen million tons of cargo went down. They were really threatening to win World War II. It was critical to decipher the Enigma messages.”

“I am going to say this for the first time in public,” he told the room of computer enthusiasts, contending the machine was actually an early kind of computer. “The Enigma has a keyboard, display and a central processing unit,” Perera explained. “What I want you to ask yourself during this presentation is, ‘Was the Enigma an early form of computer?’”

The Enigma machine was a very effective and complex coding device used by the Nazi military during World War II. Allied forces considered breaking the code and the machine’s operation vital to their efforts to defeat the Axis powers. The Allies’ eventual breaking of the Enigma code during the war was actually kept secret from the public for 30 years afterwards.

The Imitation Game,” a 2014 movie about the breaking of the Enigma codes starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is an “inaccurate” picture of how the codes were broken, said Perera. Ironically, the machine used in the film was provided by Perera’s Enigma Museum.

A working Enigma machine can sell to collectors for more than $200,000.

“The Polish mathematicians did not get any credit for the essential work until 1999,” Perera said. He contends the Poles were the first to break some of the Enigma codes and the French smuggled their work to England when Poland was invaded in 1939. It was a “team effort” according to Perera. The Polish government realized early on the threat posed by Germany and invested in breaking Enigma’s secrets.

Alan Turing, a British mathematician and cryptanalyst and the focus of “The Imitation Game,” played a big part in the development of the British Colossus, the computer that continued to break the Enigma codes, said Perera. “Turing realized the Germans were constantly improving their technology and built upon the work of the Polish mathematicians,” he suggested. Another key breakthrough was the British capture of the Enigma code books from German ships. Perera points to “Seizing the Enigma” by David Kahn as a seminal work about this event.

The Pereras realized the Enigma decoding was only part of the German’s undoing. The two have taken apart and analyzed over 60 machines and found “sabotage” to individual units, as well. The Germans “foolishly used prisoners in building the machines,” explained Perera. The Jewish prisoners building the Enigmas found creative and innovative ways of ensuring the machines would pass factory inspection but fail in the field. They could short-circuit the decoding in many ways, said Perera, through non-conductive glue on the wiring connections to a simple fishhook placed in the unit.

The Pereras have a global network of contacts, collectors and historians who provide information and help in finding and purchasing Enigma machines. A working Enigma machine in good condition can cost over $200,000.

Like many attendees at the Vintage computer show, Perera said he had a lifetime passion for computers. Sharing his computer-nerd war-stories with attendees – including years of “dumpster-diving” to get computers and other technology being thrown out by the U.S. government.

He became interested in codes and the Enigma during his work in neuroscience, which is “the study of electric connections in the brain,” said Perera. Those connections seemed similar to the connections needed to code the Enigma. Perera enjoys the travel involved with the Enigma Museum business and the amazing people he has met.

The annual Vintage Computer Festival is organized by the Vintage Computer Federation and hosted by InfoAge (Information Age Learning Center), which utilizes some of the historic district buildings on Camp Evans to promote science and the scientific and military history of the camp. Camp Evans was home to a 1914 transatlantic radio receiver and various World War II/Cold War laboratories of the United States Army.


This article was first published in the April 20-27, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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