The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Enigmatic Ingenuity

     While there are many reasons for the Allied cryptanalysts’ hard-won victory over the German cryptographers, the human factor—and German underestimation of its impact—stands foremost in my mind. Enigma machines, radios, weapons—these are all well and good, as long as people know how to use them. Clearly, the Germans were overconfident in the security of Enigma, but this overconfidence goes hand in hand with underestimation of the potential impact of human ingenuity and error.
     For the Germans, the Enigma machine initially provided an entirely secure method of communication. However, as time went on, the Enigma operators grew sloppy. They began using repetitive words, formed habits that allowed the Bletchley Park to break the Enigma. While the Germans could have placed less confidence in the security of the Enigma machine, they also could have recognized the potential for human error. Blinded as they were by the shininess of the Enigma machine, the Germans somewhat forgot about the people who were operating the machines. Humans, as it is said, are creatures of habit, and the German Enigma operators were no exception.
    For the British, German underestimation of the human factor proved critical in their path to victory. The Germans' mistakes did not just provide Bletchley Park with sufficient data to get a grip on the encryption. The underestimation of human ingenuity on the British side also resulted in the successful cryptanalysis of the Enigma code. The Germans seemingly did not predict the formation of an organization like Bletchley Park, where the best and brightest in every field related to cryptography, and many entirely unrelated. The British pulled in crossword addicts, scientists, bridge players, world class mathematicians, and history buffs. This ingenious mixture of people all thrown into the high pressure situations of worldwide war, working together, came up with many brilliant solutions to the Enigma problem. The Germans appear to not have thought of this possibility, or of the potential ingenuity of the people pulled together, and their subsequent capitalization on the errors of German cryptologists. The situation can really be viewed as one German Enigma operator and a machine against a diverse team of the brightest in the world. In the end, the human factor on both sides--error on one, and ingenuity on the other--resulted in British victory.


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1 Comment

  1. Ross

    Could the cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park have ever cracked Enigma without the human error that the German Enigma operators committed? Obviously, without the ingenuity of the British cryptanalysts Enigma would not have been cracked in time to make a difference in the war, but was the human error factor essential to the British cracking Enigma?

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