This is an encryption device commonly referred to as an Enigma. The Enigma was a rotor-based code machine used by various branches of the German military before, during and after World War II. It was used to encipher messages and decipher messages. Enciphering means converting messages from plain text to code by substituting letters in such a way that only a person with the solution or key to the code could read them. Deciphering or decoding messages means converting them from code to plain text with the appropriate key so they can be read.
Much of the effort to break Enigma's code took place at Bletchley Park, the home of the British Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) during World War II. GC&CS was responsible for breaking German military codes and turning the information into intelligence the British could use to protect their own military and plan campaigns. Bletchley Park's contribution to the war effort was vital. Historians estimate that breaking the Enigma code shortened the war in Europe by two years and saved millions of lives.
Enigma also holds an important place in the design development of the computer. The Bletchley Park code breakers used special computing devices called Bombes to decipher Enigma-encoded messages. The Bombes, invented by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, were electromechanical codebreaking machines that used processing power to speed up the deciphering of the code each day.
The Enigma machine also encouraged further design advances in other cipher machines during the war, prompting reciprocal advances in the computing devices used to decode them at Bletchley Park. For example, the Colossus, which was designed to break a later, more sophisticated code machine, was partially inspired by the Bombes created to combat Enigma. Colossus is generally recognised as the first semi-programmable computer.
Based in part on his experiences with Enigma and the Bombes, Alan Turing continued his research in the area of computers after the war. He eventually produced the Automatic Computing Machine (ACE), believed by some to be forerunner of the modern computer.
After the war, the Enigma machine was also used as a platform to design other rotor-based cipher machines. Two of the most well-known of the Cold War, the Soviet Union's Fialka machine and the United States ADONIS and POLLUX machines, were based on the Enigma.
Katy Phillips, curatorial intern
6 July 2016
(Supervised by Tilly Boleyn, curator)