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Antique Week

The discovery of a historical Enigma Machine

ANTIQUE WEEK, February 2009-- At the time of its invention, the Enigma Machine was a wonder of technology. Invented by a German electrical engineer, this ciphering - or encoding - machine used an electrical system to change plain text messages into code. The beauty of the machine was that, should it fall into enemy hands it was worthless.

The secret of the machine lay in its three rotors - or gears - and aligning those to interpret the message. At the time, before the advent of computers, it was calculated that it would take 100 machines working around the clock 5.8 years to exhaust the possibilities, according to David Kahn, author of Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U·boats Codes 1939-1943.

Enigma Discovery

The Enigma was considered by the Germans too complex to be broken. However, an elite team of cryptanalysts, mathematicians and engineers at a top secret facility in Britain managed to break the code. The critical intelligence harvested from these now decoded messages among the various branches of the German military complex has been credited with shortening - the war by some two years.

Very infrequently, a true German Enigma machine comes up for sale. Most of the known, surviving machines are housed in museums. In a rare sale, Christie's sold an Enigma machine for $104,500 at auction New York.

Among the technically inclined and historically cognizant participants at antiques show, M.S. Rau's booth showcasing the Enigma machine is always a "hot spot."

"We've had tremendous interest in this piece," Bill Rau, owner of M.S. Rau, says. "It's got a clean provenance and, I believe, condition-wise it's much nicer than the one sold at Christie's."

Rau said he bought the machine - in all places - from a man in Iowa. Prior to becoming a family heirloom, the machine was liberated from the Nazi SS headquarters in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in May 1945 by a Czech citizen who lived two blocks away. Rau said that Allied fighters, arriving in Prague shortly after the Nazis abandoned their headquarters, assume that the enemy had it taken it with them during their rushed evacuation from town.

"There were only two of these machines in all Czechoslovakia," Rau said. "To my knowledge, the other one is still there."


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