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Archive project will digitize WWII Enigma messages

By Jeremy Kirk
June 5, 2010 02:04 AM ET

IDG News Service - During World War II, Britain's brightest minds routinely decoded encrypted German military messages, an effort believed to have significantly shortened the war and saved the country further devastation.

The mathematicians and cryptography experts at Bletchley Park broke the code used by Germany's Enigma machine, a complex encryption device used across the German military. By January 1940, Britain was decoding the majority of the Enigma-encrypted radio messages intercepted by its signal intelligence stations.

Since then, buildings on the 25-acre Bletchley Park estate have fallen into disrepair: At one stage the site was close to being demolished to make way for a supermarket and housing development, and efforts to raise money to preserve it have struggled.

Existing funds have been consumed by emergency infrastructure repairs such as keeping the roofs of buildings from caving in, said Simon Greenish, director and CEO of Bletchley Park Trust. Preserving the core of Bletchley Park's heritage -- the intercepted messages -- was far down the list of priorities, he said.

Those messages are still in the building's archive after more than six decades, neatly typed on trimmed slips of paper and glued into fragile, decaying books. Also in the archive are drawers full of maps and a system of index cards used to classify messages by subject.

With the archive building's roof among those that needed fixing earlier this year, the flimsy documents stored there "really ought to be properly dealt with," Greenish said.

That is starting to happen, with the launch of a project to digitize the documents in the archive and make them accessible to the public.

Hewlett-Packard has donated servers, storage and five of its latest enterprise-level Scanjet scanners to get the project going, said Laura Seymour, marketing manager for HP's LaserJet and enterprise solutions. The company has also assigned consultants to help train volunteers and Bletchley staff on the equipment.

Volunteers will use HP's Scanjet 7000 to scan the index cards used to classify messages. Once the cryptanalysts had decoded a message, a summary of it would be written on an index card and filed under a subject heading to make it easy to find groups of related messages. The cards -- which number in the tens of thousands -- are handwritten in cursive, often on both sides.

The Scanjet 7000 can scan both sides of the cards quickly in batches. The scanner can detect if a card has been incorrectly fed or if two cards are stuck together. A larger flatbed scanner, such as HP's N9120, will be used for the books containing the actual messages. The pages of those books will have to be turned by hand in order to scan them since they are too fragile for automated page-turning scanners.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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