Enigma at School
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The story

The story of the Enigma is a combination of technology, military history and the mysterious world of espionage, code breakers and intelligence. As it happens, these are the perfect ingredients to attract the attention of young people. Enigma therefore provides the perfect subject to stimulate students to explore math and history.

Boring School Subjects

Imagine the response of your students if you tell them that you're going to talk about the Second World War and the invasion of Poland. They fall into a coma. But what if you tell about a code machine on German U-boats, top secret missions to capture code books, and students that were picked out of college to work on the largest and utmost secret code breaking project in history? What skills would your students need to crack top secret German codes? You will have all eyes and ears in your classroom!

The story of the Enigma machine is ideal to get your students interested. As they dive into this story, they will discover other amazing wartime events. Of course, once interested in those Polish top ace codebreakers, it's a small leap to the invasions of Poland. Once they learned about the U-boat communications and how Bletchley Park located those iron sharks, it's a small step to the history of naval warfare and Enigma's decisive role in the Atlantic, North Africa and during D-day.

Exciting Mathematics

There's more than history! Math plays a crucial role in breaking codes. Enigma is the perfect way to show your students that math can make the difference. Brilliant people like Alan Turing and Max Newton, founders of computer history, were ace code breakers in Bletchley Park. And it all started with math! How many possible combinations are there to place the rotors in the Enigma and how much more complicated is a Kriegsmarine Enigma?

There are also many pencil-and-paper codes that are, easy to apply and some can be broken by simple methods like letter frequency analysis. And we even didn't talk about the Colossus, the first computer ever, build to crack German messages, encrypted with the Lorenz machine. Cryptography, math and linguistics provide so many opportunities for interesting assignments.

Make History and Technology Tangible

Libby Tawes is a fine example of how history and cryptology can inspire you. Through Olin College's Sketch Model Program fellowship, she worked as an intern at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras. Her major assignment was to research and design an exhibit about the Enigma machine. The museum displays the well-known naval Enigma with serial M2946, recovered from U-boat U-85. Libby asked permission to use our Enigma simulator at the museum, but her work as an intern turned out far more interesting.

Her goal was to design an interactive visualization of the Enigma. The idea was to demonstrate the encryption process in real time with electroluminescent wire that represented the Enigma rotors and their internal wiring, and she got her chance when she returned that fall to her Principles of Engineering class (POE) at Olin College. The main goal of that class was to build an electromechanical system.

When the project started, she was randomly assigned a team of five and proposed her interactive visualization of the Enigma as the team's class project. Her teammates Dan, Bryce, Corey and Shyheim were enthused and set off to build the interactive Enigma. Corey co-led the electrical subteam with Bryce, who also contributed to the software subteam. Daniel was the lead for the mechanical subteam and also contributed to programming. Shyheim worked mainly in the mechanical subteam but also on CAD and programming. Libby, as resident mechanical engineer, contributed mainly to the overall organization and in managing the team. After eight weeks of intense work, they had created an operational version and posted their progress on a website (click the images below).

The Olin Enigma Team
Enigma POE Team

The initial design for the Enigma rotor wirings
Enigma POE Team

Their machine at the demo day
Enigma POE Team

Note: Some Olin College links are temporarily replaced by their Internet Archive versions as they launched a new website and still have links to migrate.

You can visit The Enigma Machine - A Fresh Take on an Historic Machine (archive link) from the Olin team members, but make sure to click all the "Learn More" links to discover all the photos, nuts and bolts of their fantastic interactive visualization project at the Principles of Engineering class from Olin College of Engineering. The class stimulates students to work as a team to design, construct and test electromechanical systems while learning development and production processes. More about Libby's fellowship at Olin College's Sketch Model Program and how she got inspired at Cracking The Code.

Libby's story is a wonderful example of how Enigma and its history can inspire young people. When she learned about the Enigma machine, she was not only inspired to visualise the machine's encryption process. She also tickled the interest of her team members to embark on a project that in turn is designed to interactively get others interested in Enigma and its history.

A resident student in a museum is all you need to turn seemingly boring subjects like cryptography and WW2 history into a fascinating project by engineering students. Or how history can spark the imagination of young people to become better students. That's why we document history and make it available at Cipher Machines and Cryptology. History is there to share!

The Enigma machine that inspired Libby comes with a fascinating story. In 2001, divers recovered Enigma M2946 from the wreck of the German U-boat U-85. The destroyer USS Roper sunk U-85 by gunfire on April 14, 1942 in the North Atlantic near Cape Hatteras where the museum is located. U-85 was part of Operation Drumbeat (Unternehmen Paukenschlag) to attack American ships in their own coastal waters. U-85 was lost with all hands aboard. More about U-85 at the U-boat Archive and on The Enigma is now displayed at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.

Do It!

If you're interested in using the story of Enigma in your school, this website is a great place to start collecting information on the subject. Of course, there are many other sources, especially on WW2 history, and I have put in many links to additional information. You can get a taste of code breaking excitement by visiting our Enigma Cipher Challenge, and create your own codebreaking challenge at school, where the students get the key settings to decipher an encrypted message that contain an important historical event. Let them then research that history. You can even make a paper version of the Enigma.

Teaching about the Cold War? Start with the development of the nuclear bombe, add a high profile espionage case and demonstrate your pupils modular arithmetic by teaching them how to decipher a one-time pad message. Explain letter-frequency analysis, as used in Edgar Allan Poe's Gold-Bug. This way, they learn to apply math and they like it! Of course, there are many other ways to create a fascinating project in your class. If you have any questions regarding cryptography, the Enigma or other cipher machines and their role in history for your school project, then contact me!

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Dirk Rijmenants 2004. Last changes: 21 December 2023

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