7 things to know about Dayton’s role in beating the World War II Nazi Enigma machine

2:32 p.m Thursday, June 15, 2017 Homepage

A World War II M4 Enigma cipher machine, used by the Germans to encode secret messages, will be auctioned at Christie’s in New York City this week. 

A cipher machine, designed with three rotors, was used by the Germans to encrypt communications to U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean. Thousands of ships in U.S. and Allied convoys were sunk due to these messages.

 A  World War II M4 Enigma cipher machine, similar to this one, will be auctioned off at Christie’s in New York City.   (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The British developed a machine called a Bombe that was able to decode the messages, but the Germans revamped their Enigma machine and added a fourth rotor. The British Bombe could no longer decypher the messages.  

That’s where Dayton and a man named Joseph Desch came in.

Here are 7 things to know about Dayton’s role in cracking German ciphers: 

1. Top secret. Joseph R. Desch, who grew up on Dayton’s west side, headed a top-secret program in 1942 and 1943 at National Cash Register to develop an American version of the code-breaking Bombe that could break the four-rotor Enigma machine. 

Joseph Desch was a NCR engineer who worked on machines to break the Enigma Code. Photo:  The NCR Archive at Dayton History

2. Calculating skill. One reason Desch was selected was because of his and NCR’s work on inventing the first electronic calculator, according to research by Jim DeBrosse, a former Dayton Daily News reporter who co-wrote the book “The Secret in Building 26.” 

3. Endless combinations. “For a single scrambled letter, there were more possible settings for the Engima machine than there are atoms in the known universe,” according to DeBrosse. “Desch’s Bombe was the equivalent to 16 Engima machines working at high speed in reverse.”

4. Women made the difference. Hundreds of Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) worked in Dayton during World War II assembling the top-secret machines. Each Bombe rolled on wheels, weighed two tons and measured 2 feet wide, 7 feet tall and 10 feet long. 

A U.S. Navy WAVE demonstrates the Desch Bombe, one of 120 codebreaking machines designed and built in NCR's Building 26, between 1943-45, for use in cracking the Nazi U-boat and other Enigma codes. Photo: Dayton History 

5. Turing inspects work. Alan Turing, an English computer scientist and mathematician who developed the British code breaking machine, visited Dayton on Dec. 21, 1942 to see the work being done at NCR. A movie, “The Imitation Game,” was made about Turing and his work and starred Benedict Cumberbatch. 

6. Bringing about the end of the war. During the war 120 U.S. Bombe machines were installed, and the U.S. took responsibility for decoding the majority of the German Enigma messages according to the Crypto Museum website. All but one of the Bombes were destroyed after the war. The last one made by NCR is on display at the National Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade in Maryland. 

A photo of the Bombe before it was encased in Plexiglass at the the National Cryptologic Museum. This is the last survivor out of 120 built by National Cash Register during WW II. (Photo courtesy of The National Security Agency/National Cryptologic Museum)

7. An impact like no other. In 1947, President Harry Truman awarded Desch the Medal for Merit, the highest U.S. civilian decoration, for his wartime work. Desch died in 1987 at 80.