Project Enigma (historical background)

As for the historical background: the Enigma machine was a device developed by the German military, and used during the Nazi era. An early version was cracked by the Polish, a later version was famously cracked by the British (led by Alan Turing), eventually the US Forces tried to deal with the most advanced version; each group building on their predecessors' work.

To call Alan Turing the father of the computer, though defendable, is an exaggeration IMAO. The computer has several "fathers" - Blaise Pascal, Charles Babbage, Konrad Zuse, and John von Neumann - just to name a few others; and in this forum Alonzo Church cannot go unmentioned :smirk: . Remarkably, women were among the first computer programmers, such as Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper.

Alas, the computers they were able to build at that time were neither fast enough nor big enough for it to work as you're imagining. Bletchley Park had hundreds of employees trying to decode messages through the end of the war. They wouldn't have had a prayer without Turing, but what he built was a set of mathematical and hardware tools that allowed a huge staff of codebreakers to try to figure out each day's code. (The Germans changed the settings on the Enigma every day.) Once they had the day's code, the rest of that day was easy. But there were plenty of days when they didn't break the code at all.

(I've just finished reading The Enigma Girls, a book for teenagers about ten of the (upper-) teenage girls who worked at Bletchley, who published memoirs very late in life because the UK Official Secrets Act forbade them from ever telling anyone what they had done, until finally the government declassified the Bletchley operation.)

PS They also wouldn't have had a prayer without the early work of Polish mathematicians, whose names nobody remembers including me, although they did the hardest part of the job, analyzing how the Enigma worked in the first place and making mathematical models of it. (Yeah, I'm sure somebody remembers, probably including Wikipedia, but I mean no non-experts know anyone's name but Turing.)

Alas, the role of the US in this story is quite limited. Quite late in the war, they built a faster computer for other purposes (hint: engineering the atomic bomb took a lot of applied math) and let the Bletchley team use it also.

What makes Turing and Church stand out from Babbage and all those other computing pioneers is that they founded computer science, the theoretical understanding of computation. They published independent solutions to Hilbert's Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem), which asked for an algorithm to determine whether any given statement is provable in logic. Church proved that it's impossible to determine, in general, whether any two procedures compute the same function; Turing proved that it's impossible to determine in guaranteed finite time whether a given Turing machine will halt in finite time for a particular input tape.

We Lispians consider it terribly unfair that almost everyone credits Turing alone with the solution to the Entscheidungsproblem even though Church actually got there slightly earlier. I think this happened because everyone recognizes a Turing machine as an algorithm, whereas back then nobody understood what Church was talking about, or how functions embody algorithms. It was only when McCarthy turned Church's ideas into an actual computer programming language (Lisp) that people got it -- and not all people, for half a century after that. (I should emphasize that Turing himself did understand and acknowledge that Church got there first.)

(By the way, one of the things Snap! users ask for periodically is that = should report True for two procedures that do the same thing. What Church proved is that that's not possible in general.)

I want to take issue with the "remarkably." When I was a kid in the '50s, when to a first approximation all the programmers worked for IBM, they had a hard time hiring people, and so they took to standing on street corners grabbing passers-by, giving them an aptitude test, and offering jobs to the ones who passed. And most of the people they hired that way were women, because that's who didn't have jobs in the postwar years, as the job market was flooded by returning male soldiers.

By the time I knew about computers, in the '60s, those days were over, and programmers were mostly men.

Countess Lovelace is important in the history of computing because, while Babbage was thinking of his proposed computer in terms of numerical problems such as computing tables of logarithms, she made the huge intellectual leap to understanding that all kinds of information could be represented numerically, "digitally" as we say today, and that therefore Babbage's machine could be used for symbolic computation such as the processing of text, audio, and images. Of course Babbage couldn't actually build his machine. (His budget ran out, with which I can empathize, but also, his mechanical design demanded mechanical engineering beyond the ability of his time, such as precision in the manufacture of gears.) And so Lovelace's work wasn't generally known by the time we had actual computers, and so it had to be reinvented.

Haha, someone posts something about the history of computing, and bh immediately forks it as a separate topic.

Not just users …

There’s two reasons for my use of the word “remarkably”:

  1. All those people credited with being the / a “father of computing”, and in some cases building an early hardware device, were men (hence no one is ever called “mother of computing”, or “parent”), whereas among programming pioneers women were almost dominant.
  2. Information Technology is often regarded as a masculine field of work (for no substantial reason, I agree).

ummm. did you just take that from wikipidea

if you ever watched imitation game or hidden figures those women all had major rolls in computing

I doubt it. I mean, bh is definitely the oldest amongst all of us, he knows what he's doing.

I wonder how computers of the day were able to crack these codes - did they just use random combinations and see which one matches the best? Or did they literally use strategic algorithms and math to figure everything out?

imitation game is an older movie

no. Hitler always ended his letter and started his letters in the same way so they just needed to use that and reverse it

Not immediately; I first posted all that stuff that I have in this thread in that other thread, then started feeling guilty about hijacking it (and maybe discouraging entries in this challenge). It was my own bloviating that I felt the need to fork out, more than your post.

Note, I said "the same expression," not "the same function," which is a different matter entirely. But you're right, even what I asked for might not be possible, I'm not sure.

I confess to looking up the decision problem, but most of the stuff about Bletchley and Turing I just knew.

There was a lot of guessing. They had special-purpose computers that would try some key and generate messages decrypted with that candidate key, and some of those Bletchley women we're talking about would read the tapes looking for actual German words, and when they found one, they brought that tape over to the next bunch of experts, who'd use that as a basis for reverse engineering the code for the day. There was a lot of physical running around from one building to another, although typically they couldn't go into the other building, because you were only allowed to know about your own job.

Do you have a reference for this? I still think you think it was an easier process than it actually was.

Yeah, I'm not accusing you of sexism; I just couldn't let that stand in the record without comment.

oh, im aware of its complexion. tho now in days super simple back in the days it costed a couple million and a room full of geniuses

Like what qw23 in their split post said, it wasn't just Mr Turing who worked on the computing processes to decipher the Nazi Enigma Codes - there were multiple people working at Bletchley Park and many people who worked indirectly FOR Bletchley Park as spies, who would steal messages received by a wireless reading Morse Code Messages and send them back to Bletchley Park in time for decoding (they would go on to work for other government agencies like the CIA but let's not get to ahead of ourselves)

i wasnt giving an entire history lesson. those people were irrelevant to my point

6 posts were merged into an existing topic: Project Enigma