What Is the Enigma Machine? What You Need To Know

Last Updated on November 10, 2020 by Sean B

World War II was a period of extreme social and political upheaval and drastic changes in the economy of countries, not to mention that it was the cause of countless atrocities from which humanity has yet to recover from.

The plight-inducing environment of World War II was also the cause of many innovations and inventions that were mainly tied to intentions of war.  The numerous inventions which came about during or due to World War II include penicillin, computers, and the gist of today’s blog, the Enigma machine.

The Enigma Machine played a huge role in shaping World War II events and the events that subsequently followed it. So, what is the Enigma machine? Stay with us to find out.

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What Is the Enigma Machine?

The Enigma Machine is a famous encoding device used by the Germans during World War II to transmit coded messages. The Enigma Machine allows billions of ways to encode a message, which made it extremely difficult for the other nations to crack the code of the Nazis.

Not only that, but at one time, the code was unbreakable for everyone and the transmission of the encoded message was undecipherable for the other nations. This fact contributed to making the Nazi regime seem invincible for the allied nations until the code was eventually defeated by the pioneer in computer science, Alan Turing (a further discussion on Alan Turing shall be provided in a later section).

The Enigma Machine is an example of innovation in the field of cryptology during World War II. The Enigma Machine had enormous strategic importance to the Germans as they employed it extensively to communicate with each other without getting caught by the allied powers.

Who Invented the Enigma Machine?

The Enigma Machine was invented by the German engineer Arthur Scherbius at the end of World War I. This means that the Machine was around well before the events of World War II, where the Nazi regime employed it for their purposes.

Arthur Scherbius co-founded a German firm Scherbius & Ritter, and patented ideas for a cipher machine in 1918 and started marketing the final product initially targeted at commercial companies in 1923 under the brand name “Enigma.”

The Early History of the Enigma Machine

The initial models and prototypes of the Enigma Machine were always around and were used by commercial companies from the early 1920s and were also utilized by several governments that adopted the ciphering techniques for their military operations and services.

Most notable of all the governments that employed the Enigma Machine is Nazi Germany before and during World War II. Among all the Enigma Machine models, the German military model with the plug board is the most complex one.

Japanese and Italian models of the Enigma Machine have also been around. With the adoption of the German model in the German Navy in 1926 and subsequently in the German Army and Air Force, the name Enigma became widely known in the military circle.

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Enigma Machine and Blitzkrieg

The German army has always emphasized the employment of fast, powerful, and precise attacks on the enemy to dislocate them and breakthrough their defense lines. This war tactic later came to be known as the Blitzkrieg in Western Journalism.

The Blitzkrieg was a military tactic where the German army would use their armored and motor vehicles’ concentrated force in conjunction with close air support. The tactic was utilized to catch the enemy by surprise and encircle them by the use of combined forces.

This war tactic necessitated the precise employment of radio communication for command and coordination. Since the enemy would likely try to interfere with the transmitted signals, thus rendering the strategy useless, the need for a method to safely encode the messages was paramount.

The use of the Enigma Machine was beneficial for the Germans to safely encode the messages as well as strengthening the Blitzkrieg tactic. This combination of undecipherable codes and the Blitzkrieg proved to be fatal for the adversaries of Nazi Germany.

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Breaking the Enigma Code

As fearsome and unstoppable the war tactics of Nazi Germany were, their tactics were not completely invincible. The enigma code, which was at one time considered unbreakable, was first broken by the poles.

The poles were a polish ethnic group native to Poland in Central Europe. The poles, led by the mathematician Marian Rejewski broke the code in the early 1930s. In 1939, due to an invasion’s possible threat, the poles decided to give their information to the British.

The British then employed a secret code-breaking group known as Ultra under the leadership of Mathematician, Logician, and pioneer in the field of computer science. The crypto analysis was a crucial factor that brings about the victory of the allied powers over the axis.

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How Alan Turing Cracked the Enigma Code?

Alan Turing was already working part-time for the British government in the Code and Cypher school before the events of World War II. In 1939, Alan took a full-time job at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.

The British government had developed an extensive cryptanalytic facility at Bletchley Park focused on breaking the Nazi code. Although the poles broke the code, the German increased their security for their enciphered messages, which made breaking the code even more difficult.

Alan Turing, along with his fellow codebreakers, developed a machine known as Bombe. The Machine significantly reduced the work the codebreakers had to do to decipher the messages, and from mid-1940, German air signals began to be deciphered at the Bletchley Park. This contribution of Alan Turing enormously helped the war efforts of Allied forces.

The Design of the Enigma Machine

The Enigma Machine is a combination of electrical and mechanical systems; The Enigma Machine looks like a Huge typewriter with a keyboard and intricate inner machinery. The Enigma Machine parts include an electrical pathway, three rotors, an entry wheel, a reflector, a plugboard, and some accessories such as Uhr and Schreibmax.

How Does the Enigma Machine Work?

The Enigma machine’s encryption process is simple to describe yet extremely difficult to break. The Machine has buttons that you can use to type your message, and then the buttons light up, showing that the message has been encrypted.

The reverse can be done for decoding, type in the encrypted message, and the buttons will light up, showing that the message has been decrypted. The Enigma Machine has three rotors inside, which take in each letter and return a different letter.

That letter provided to the Machine passes from all three rotors and then bounces off a reflector and then again passes through all three rotors and becomes decrypted. The board lights up to show that the message has been encrypted.

When the board lights up, the first of the rotors clicks round one position and changes the output even if the second later input was the same as the first one. When the first rotor has finished turning through all 26 positions, the second rotor clicks around, and when the second rotor has finished turning around, the third rotor does the same.

This leads to more than 17,000 combinations before the encryption process repeats. The design included a plugboard sitting between the main rotors to handle input and output and swapping letters.

Step-By-Step Encryption Process

Enigma Machine works on the principle of substitution encryption. The process is discussed following.

  1. The sender types the message on the keyboard.
  2. The letter passes through the plugboard, which swaps the letters.
  3. The three rotors change the letter before the letter bounces off the reflector and passes through the rotors again.
  4. The first rotor rotates each step after each keypress, which is followed by the second and then the third after 26 steps.
  5. The reflected letter passes through the plugboard.
  6. The letter (in the signal form) lights up a letter on a keyboard.
  7. Then, the sender copies the encrypted message and sends it by using morse code. For communication, the sender and the receiver both need to set up their Machine in the same pattern.
  8. The receiver writes down the encrypted message and puts as input each letter into the Machine and for each letter finds the original letter lit up on the keyboard and thus decodes the message.

The bombe machine was beneficial in decrypting the encoded messages by eliminating most of the rotor positions; however, the last steps were needed to be done manually by the codebreakers. The job of the Bombe machine was to decrease the work codebreakers had to do to decipher the code.

Are Enigma Machines Still Around?

The only surviving examples of enigma machines can be found in museums, such as in Munich, Germany, in the Deutsches Museum. The museum in Germany exhibits both three and four-rotor versions of the enigma machines along with many civilian versions.

At the National Code center in the Bletchley Park, enigma machines are also exhibited. Some more museums include the Science Museum in London, the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby, and the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw.

We hope that the information was insightful, please let us know what you thought.
We’re looking forward to reading your thoughts in the comments section below.

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4 thoughts on “What Is the Enigma Machine? What You Need To Know”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this well written article about the enigma machine. It’s very informative and goes into great detail. Of course I’ve heard about it and a lot of history surrounding the machine, but you’ve explained clearly how it works. These coding machines really were the first computers and it’s fascinating to think the technology behind our laptops and smart phones has it’s beginnings from World war 2

    • Kathy,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, it was fascinating researching it and writing it. The thing that amazes me the most is that it took another of the world’s first real computers to crack the code created by the Enigma Machines. The recreation of Alan Turing’s Bombe is fascinating to watch in the movie The Imitation Game, and it’s a fantastic film. If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it.

      Thanks again for the wonderful comment,

  2. Hey,

    It’s great learning about the enigma machine because one of my favourite films is the Benedict Cumberbatch film “The Imitation Game” where they use another computer to break the Nazi enigma codes. Great film.

    Thank you for sharing and keep up the great work.

    All the best,



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