Illustrious Code Breakers: Sigaba and Enigma

6/08/2011 10:10:00 AM ·

Instead of hitting more WW1 planes on my tour of the National Museum of the United States Air Force, I ran right into the code breaking area, where the Enigma and Sigaba code breaking machines have been set up behind glass casing. I could just imagine the messages being sent to Hitler, warning him of the next assassination attempt.
For those of you puzzle and code aficionados, do you actually know the difference between a code and a cipher? A code can be an entire word or idea for example ABC might stand for meet us at dawn. On the other hand, ciphers take a phrase like Take off at midnight and change it to keaTffatmid0ngthi.

Enigma: German Code Breaking

German Enigma code breaking machine
On loan from the National Cryptologic Museum (NSA)
It may look like your common typewriter, but this three rotor coding machine named the "Enigma", was used by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force).

Sigaba: United States Air Force Code Breaking

Sigaba US Air Force code break machine
A bit more perplexing is this Sigaba machine, used my the United States Air Force. Looks quite similar to the Nazi code machine and there's a reason for that. Both of these machines have the capability to scramble messages by sending electrical current through the wheels. Hardly a super computer, but able to manipulates its parts to substitute letters in the alphabet by the complexity of the wiring.
These machines are not able to send or receive message like a radio or computer, they can only decipher text that's been entered. Both the Sigaba and the Enigma relied on a "keylist" to prevent cryptologists from decoding messages.


Most Enigmas used three or four rotors and Sigaba machines used fifteen. Therefore, the ability to decipher Sigaba’s codes was practically impossible. This may have been the result of the age of the technology. The Enigma machine came out in 1918 and was used for banking purposes. Sigaba was invented twenty years later strictly for military usage.

Enigma relied on two operators. While one person entered the message the other copied down the letters. The Sigaba was quick and efficient requiring only one person to operate, collecting the small piece of tape with the message.


While both Allied and Axis forces believed their machines were unbreakable, only one proved to be, that being Sigaba.

By 1943, 10,000 Sigaba machines were in use and by 1959, the speed of technology demanded more advanced equipment. Most of the Sigabas were destroyed to protect their design from enemies. However, in 1996 the secret patent became declassified.

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