History, Technology

How did the Enigma machine work?

Like all the best cryptography, the Enigma machine is simple to describe, but infuriating to break.

Straddling the border between mechanical and electrical, Enigma looked from the outside like an oversize typewriter. Enter the first letter of your message on the keyboard and a letter lights up showing what it has replaced within the encrypted message. At the other end, the process is the same: type in the ciphertext and the letters which light are the decoded missive.

Inside the box, the system is built around three physical rotors. Each takes in a letter and outputs it as a different one. That letter passes through all three rotors, bounces off a reflector at the end, and passes back through all three rotors in the other direction.

The board lights up to show the encrypted output, and the first of the three rotors clicks round one position — changing the output even if the second letter input is the same as the first one.

When the first rotor has turned through all 26 positions, the second rotor clicks round, and when that’s made it round all the way, the third does the same, leading to more than 17,000 different combinations before the encryption process repeats itself. Adding to the scrambling was a plugboard, sitting between the main rotors and the input and output, which swapped pairs of letters. In the earliest machines, up to six pairs could be swapped in that way; later models pushed it to 10, and added a fourth rotor — via redwolf.newsvine.com

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