A creepy World War II Enigma machine hits the auction block

They say it's one of the "hardest" cipher machines to decode.


Cryptography continues to fascinate people around the world. The practice of "cipher-text" used during World War II is one of those fields that still attracts the attention, intrigue, and even frustration of historians and general observers who want to look deeper inside that war-riddled, propaganda-replete timeline. So, the news that a World War II Enigma machine has hit the auction block is bound to attract quite a few history buffs.

This particular Enigma machine, as LiveAuctioneers' head of sales Sophie Hopkins notes, was of great importance to Germany's head of U-boat fleet, Karl Dönitz. According to Hopkins, this encryption device worked at a much more sophisticated level.

"The machine’s use of four rotors, instead of three, and the operator’s ability to select these from a pool of eight interchangeable rotors, together with stricter operating procedures, gave the M4 Enigma a much higher level of encryption. For 10 months – a long time in war – the M4 defeated the previously successful decryption of Allied codebreakers," she explained. And it's going to be a pricey purchase too as the estimated range (at least right now) is somewhere between an eyebrow-raising £200,000-£300,000 (roughly $250,000-377,000).


What, pray tell, is an Enigma machine? — Designed to look like a harmless and rather chunky typewriter, the Enigma machine encrypts classified information through double and triple coded letters. In order to protect missives and information during World War II, commercial, military, and diplomatic officials would type a letter in the machine while another individual would jot down which letter lit up on the cryptic device.

The key lists would be given to officials within the ranks ahead of time, so that the decoding process wouldn't be compromised. Normally, the Enigma machine involves three rotors but as Hopkins notes for this particular find, this model uses four. At the very least, thanks to its switching of code, the machine could yield at least 17,000 different combinations in its encryption process.

Beyond war — It would be naive to limit the Enigma machine to wars and strife alone. As it turns out, heightened interest in decoding information passed on by the Enigma machine led to the development of the Lorenz cipher, which was much more effective at codebreaking. Right after Lorenz, the Colossus was made and subsequently became the world's first digital programmable computing system between 1943 and 1945.

Whoever ends up owning this Enigma machine will have a chance to understand cipher-work during World War II but also math, cryptanalysis, encipherment procedures, military intelligence measures, design, and much more. It's a history lesson in the form of a fat typewriter-like device.