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Crack the code: WWII-era Enigma machines on display at Carnegie Mellon

Aaron Aupperlee
| Monday, March 12, 2018, 2:12 p.m.
A complete WWII German Enigma machine — the sender's keyboard and the receiver's — is on display in the Fine and Rare Book Room at Carnegie Mellon University’s Hunt Library in Oakland on March 8, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
A complete WWII German Enigma machine — the sender's keyboard and the receiver's — is on display in the Fine and Rare Book Room at Carnegie Mellon University’s Hunt Library in Oakland on March 8, 2018.
Here's a closeup of the Enigma machine's keyboard on display in the Fine and Rare Book Room at CMU’s Hunt Library in Oakland on March 8, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Here's a closeup of the Enigma machine's keyboard on display in the Fine and Rare Book Room at CMU’s Hunt Library in Oakland on March 8, 2018.
An Enigma machine is on display in the Fine and Rare Book Room at CMU’s Hunt Library in Oakland on March 8, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
An Enigma machine is on display in the Fine and Rare Book Room at CMU’s Hunt Library in Oakland on March 8, 2018.
An Enigma machine is on display in the Fine and Rare Book Room at CMU’s Hunt Library in Oakland on March 8, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
An Enigma machine is on display in the Fine and Rare Book Room at CMU’s Hunt Library in Oakland on March 8, 2018.

Enigma machines kept many German secrets during World War II.

The best minds in mathematics and cryptography toiled to break the codes the Nazis used to direct attacks by land, air and sea.

Now, some of the best minds in computer science and cyber security will have an opportunity to examine Enigma machines up close and crack their secrets at Carnegie Mellon University.

A pair of World War II-era, German Enigma machines anchor a collection of mechanical calculators, encryption devices, and early computers permanently loaned to the university by Pamela McCorduck, the widow of Joseph Traub, a renowned computer scientist and the former head of CMU's Computer Science Department.

The collection is on display in the Fine and Rare Book Room inside CMU's Hunt Library in Oakland.

The gift makes CMU among a handful of institutions in the United States with Enigma machines and among the very few with them on display.

“Nobody would pretend that these are state-of-the-art machines,” said Keith Webster, dean of CMU's libraries. “It's just a perfect fit for Carnegie Mellon.”

CMU is among the top computer science schools in the country. Its scholars laid the foundation for artificial intelligence in the 1950s, and its researchers today are pushing boundaries in AI, robotics and cyber security.

Traub was the second dean of CMU's computer science department, arriving on campus in 1971 and growing the department until he left in 1979 to start a computer science program at Columbia University in New York.

“Both Joe and Pamela were real historians of computation, its connection to the past and its prelude to the future,” said

Philip Lehman was a graduate student in computer science at CMU while Traub headed the department and is now the associate dean for advancement in CMU's School of Computer Science.

“It's really important to learn about the past to get to the future,” Lehman said.

McCorduck, an author whose works popularized many of the early theories in computer science and artificial intelligence, gave CMU more than 50 machines along with letters, books and other writings by Traub.

The machines span centuries, from slide rules used to build bridges to a Power Mac G4 Cube — a stylish computer from 2000 that already looks like an antique compared to modern devices.

The collection also includes rare books by Charles Babbage, a 19th Century mathematician considered a computer pioneer.

“The thing about the computer is that the acceleration is relatively short,” Lehman said, noting how quickly we went from the near basketball-sized G4 computer to the sleek smartphones that fit in our pockets. “And yet there had to be something that predated it.”

Traub lived much of the short, accelerated history of the modern computer, Lehman said. His interest started in the 1950s and continued through his death in 2015.

His collection, however, shows that Traub had an appreciation and interest for what led to the computer.

“You can kind of see where we came from,” Lehman said.

Surviving WWII-era German Enigma machines are rare. Thousands were produced during the war, but only about 350 are thought to survive. Of those, about 70 are on display in museums and institutions around the world.

The National Security Agency has 21 machines, but fewer than 20 other institutions — including the Smithsonian, the International Spy Museum and the Air Force and Naval academies — around the country have a machine, according to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

That CMU has two — a three-rotor device used by the German army and air force and a four-rotor device used by the German navy famously to keep secret the movements and locations of its destructive U-boat fleet — puts the university in exclusive company.

The technology underlying the Enigma machine was patented 100 years ago. It was originally designed to encrypt business communications. European militaries, however, co-opted the machine to send secret messages.

An Enigma machine used two methods to encrypt letters.

A plug board on the front of the machine had all 26 letters of the alphabet and 20 wires to connect them.

If the A was connected to the Q, then any A used in the message would follow the path of the Q. Three or four rotors inside the machine scrambled letters of a message, changing Ps to Ts and Es to Zs seemingly at random.

To read the encoded message, the person receiving the message must have an Enigma machine set up exactly — rotors in the same sequence, plug board wires in the same positions — as the sender.

There are 15 quintillion — or 15 billion billion, or a 15 with 18 zeros after it — different ways to configure an Enigma machine.

The Nazi's infamous use of Enigma machines to encrypt military communications deceived Allied forces. Top researchers were recruited to crack Enigma alongside military codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England.

Work by pioneering mathematicians, computer scientists and cryptographers, including Alan Turing, are credited with breaking the Enigma code and stealing valuable secrets from the Germans.

Webster, the head of CMU's library, admits the university still has much to learn about the Enigma machines and the rest of the collection. The Enigma machines themselves could be worth $500,000 a piece, Webster said. The university has not determined a value of the entire collection.

CMU will host McCorduck on April 19 for “From Enigma to AI: The Legacy of Pamela McCorduck and Joseph Traub at CMU.”

The Rare and Fine Book Room will be open to the public through the beginning of May for people to view the collection, including the Enigma machines. The room will be open 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com or 412-336-8448.

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