Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Enigma News

In case you haven't seen already, it has been revealed that Franco used the Enigma Machine in the Spanish Civil War.

But it may be worth pausing to consider for a moment our country's fascination with the Enigma machine. Why is it such a popular icon - and any stories about Enigma machines are immediately snapped up by the Enigma machine. Why? Here are a few reasons:

1. The Enigma machine represents a tangible, enduring, inoffensive of war memorabila. It is an easily identifiable object that stands for one aspect of World War 2 - and of course, as a nation we are still obsessed with World War 2.

2. The Enigma machine is simple and is in itself a thing of beauty. And yet it represents bamboozling perplexity. Such a small, easily contained item - not much bigger than a typewriter, in a pleasing wooden case. And yet it has serious scrambling power.

3. The British encryption machine, TypeX, was actually more effective and powerful. It was based on the Enigma-rotor system, and was not broken by the Germans. They did not however, have a code-breaking initiative on the scale of Bletchley Park. But it is not such a beautiful design and it doesn't come with the same stories that the Enigma brings. It's altogether less exciting to the man in the street.

4. The cracking of the Enigma machine represents a popular, memorable, British success in World War Two. It's something to be proud of as a nation. I say 'popular' because it is popularly believed that the British cracked the Enigma when it was the Poles who got there first, invented the Bombe and handed their research to the British - saving them months of headscratching work. The Poles were, in my opinion, rather shamefully sidenlined thereafter, but there's not doubt that Turing, Newman et al built on the work and did amazing things with numbers and letters. One unequivocally British success of cracking the Lorenz cipher, Hitler's own personal code that was far more heavily encrypted than anything else previously encountered. And this led to the building of Colussus, which, despite the name, isn't as strong a 'brand' as the German Enigma machine.

Anyway, those are some brief thoughts on the matter. Read about the Spanish Civil War story here.