Thursday, 13 September 2012

What an enigma!

An Enigma Machine at Bletchley Park

Enigma machines were the height of cipher technology back in World War II and were most notably used by the Germans to communicate important messages. The basics of the machine are that you input a letter, it travels through three rotors which encrypt it, it is then reflected back through those three rotors which encrypts it further and you then get an output letter. The rotor then moves on one position so if you typed a H the first time and it came out as a Z, the next time you type H it might come out as a P for example. This is what made it difficult to decode (there's some diagrams on wikipedia that may help more than my explanation!)

In order to decode the messages, you needed to know how the coded machine had been set up - which rotors had been used in which order and their start points. During the war, the settings changed every 24 hours, again to make the codes even harder to crack.

Although it all sounds quite complicated you can make a paper version of the Enigma machine very easily as someone has already done most of the work for you. You can download a paper enigma machine (this link will download a PDF) that fits perfectly round a pringles tube.

Here's one @TeaKayB made earlier.

You can then encode messages to send to others and as long as they know the settings you used to write your message they can use the same ones to decode it. Simple! I think this would be a great addition to anyone studying WWII as a topic or as part of a maths challenge all about codes and ciphers. I wonder if the children could even develop their own code machine along similar lines.

(If you want to see the real thing and learn about them in more detail then get yourself along to Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes. You pay £12 for an annual pass and can then visit as many times as you like - not a bad deal at all as there's way more than a day's entertainment there).

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