Robert Welsh approaches the inner workings of the notorious German Enigma machine with the same innate curiosity that drove him as a young boy to disassemble assorted gizmos to see how they functioned.
Although for Welsh, Chancellor Professor of Physics at the College, the Enigma is far less complex than the machines used for his current research in experimental particle physics or in small animal imaging at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, it continues to fascinate. Demonstrating the device, he is quick to remove its three component rotors, to lift the keyboard, to trace the paths of the connecting wires and to demonstrate how the signal, once it completes its path, illuminates the appropriate letter on a display panel.
"The beauty of the Enigma is that every time you pushed a key, you not only sent electricity through the rotors, you turned the rotors to a new position," Welsh explained. "So, for every letter you cipher, the mathematics are different." That function made the resulting messages far more difficult to decode than those that are featured, for instance, as puzzles in some popular newpapers. "In those, if you assume that ‘e' is the most frequently occuring letter, you can have success," Welsh said. "The Enigma, however, changed with every push of the key."
As for the ability of the intended receiver to recognize the message, the Enigma is a reciprocal device, Welsh explained. "All you need to decipher is an identical machine set up with the indentical initial settings. If you press ‘m' and an ‘r' comes out, then if you press ‘r,' an ‘m' would come out."
The Enigma is only one of several cryptological devices Welsh has added to his personal collection over the years. Others include an M-209 portable unit manufactured by Smith-Corona for the U.S. military, a Strip Sphinx cipher device from France and a much more common Captain Marvel decoder ring. His Enigma, however, which based on its serial number was built in 1939, remains, in a sense, the queen of the collection, both in terms of its supreme utility and of its subsequent place in history. Many historians claim that the ability of the Allies to break the Axis messages during the Second World War shortened the duration of the conflict by as long as two years, a time frame that easily translates into hundreds of thousands of lives saved.
As owner of the machine, Welsh has become somewhat of an expert on the history of the Enigma. Occassionally he gives talks while demonstrating the device. Among the points he makes are that a commercial version was available to businesses in the early 1920s for approximately $100, that between 30,000 and 100,000 of the modified units were in German military service at one time or another and that it was essentially due to the work of three Polish crypologists that the Allies were able to break the code. Two things helped solve the German ciphers. "One was some really smart mathematics," Welsh said. The second involved some "hubris" on the part of the Germans. "Although they were able to rearrange the rotors, during the early part of the 1930s, the Germans were starting every day with the same settings," he said. "The Germans were convinced that someone could have an identical machine and, without the settings, could not read their messages. They also thought the French and the British did not have the mental accuity to break the code. They were pretty smug about it."
Allied codebreakers were successful deciphering messages of the German military through 1942, when the German Navy commissioned a four-rotor version of the machine, which added 26 potential scramblings. "For almost all of 1942, the allies were unable to break into the German naval ciphers," Welsh said. "Prior to that, the American and British navies knew where the German submarines were; suddenly they didn't know. For the next few months, the Germans sank merchant vessels at a rate that would have resulted in Britain starving."
Welsh had been a collector of science and technology instruments for some time prior to obtaining his own Enigma. In the early 1980s, when he came across some of the first books on the encryption machine that were published, his interest in that particular device was aroused. Subsequently he worked in Geneva, where he put an advertisement in a local newspaper. Responding, a man offered to sell him Enigma machines in various conditions at prices starting at $2,000 a piece. "Well, I thought that was outrageous," Welsh said. "In hindsight, I wish I had bought the guy's entire collection."
Although he spends much time continuing to investigate the history of the machine, at heart it is his intrigue with the mechanics of the device that retain Welsh's interest in the Enigma. "I was old enough to pay attention during World War II, although I was too young to be drafted," Welsh said. "My fascination-the thing that really got me interested-is simply that they are such neat mechanical contrivances."
As with any contrivance, Welsh leans toward disassembly. "From childhood, I would take things apart," he admitted. If sometimes the young Welsh could not put things back together-oh well, that was then.
Indeed, since he purchased his own Engima machine from a London auctioneer 15 years ago, he has tinkered with it and, in the process, has restored it to near original condition. It is a labor that not only has helped quell the professor's craving for manipulating devices, it has a potential monetary payoff should Welsh decide to sell. Recently an Enigma machine reportedly was purchased for the equivalent of $70,000 on the eBay Web site.