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Cracking the Code in 2019

A rekindled passion for public history inspires projects on the great “unbreakable” coding machine

It’s been many decades since crackerjack cryptologists broke the secret code of the Nazis’ sophisticated Enigma machines—an accomplishment credited with helping to shorten the course of the World War II by several years. But for history and technology buffs, the fascination for the ingenious technology that stymied so many code-breakers is still going strong. 

Olin mechanical engineering student Libby Tawes counts herself as one of them. Before last summer, she hadn’t heard of the Enigma machine, but now she has an intensive passion for these early cryptology machines. “I could literally talk for days about it,” she says.

Because of its complicated encryption algorithms, the Germans considered the Enigma code unbreakable, and for a long time it was. Eventually, though, brilliant mathematicians at Bletchley Park invented the Bombe machine to crack the code. Master cryptoanalyst and pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing’s invention of the Bombe machine is often considered the beginning of modern computing.

Thanks to a Mellon Foundation Arts + Action grant awarded during its inaugural year, Tawes was able to discover the appeal of the Enigma machine for herself. She was awarded the grant to explore her passion for public history at North Carolina’s Hatteras Maritime Museum. During an internship last summer, she was tasked with a self-directed project to come up with a proposal for an exhibit on the Enigma machine. In creating this proposal, she put her skills in design and technical research to use in order to explain the complexities of the machine and its impact to museum-goers who weren’t technically savvy. 

Tawes applied for the grant because she wanted to learn how she could better incorporate her interest in the humanities into her future engineering career. As a born and raised local of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, stories of the Lost Colony, Blackbeard and the Wright Brothers’ first flight are in her blood. “Giving a speech on the hidden presence of German submarines on the East coast during the second World War is as natural as breathing,” she says.

In high school, Tawes did a capstone research project on Torpedo Junction, where Germans sank hundreds of Allied ships. It was there, in 2001, that divers recovered an Enigma machine from the first U-boat to sink off the Outer Banks during the war, and donated it to the Hatteras Museum. It has been in restoration since then, and museum staff was eager for a way to display it. 

During her internship, Tawes threw herself into puzzling out a way to showcase this machine to the public. That meant first learning how the machine itself worked, as well as its flaws and how each of those flaws were used to reverse-engineer the settings critical to deciphering messages.

“It’s complex, elegant and sophisticated, and learning the story of how it was broken had me on the edge of my seat,” she says. Tawes wanted to re-create this excitement in her exhibition proposal. “It’s one thing to preserve the history of an item, time or place, but it is another thing altogether to preserve a feeling,” she says.

She spent a month designing an exhibit that would inspire the same awe and amazement she felt, and proposed a physically and digitally interactive exhibit that demonstrated in a clear and simple manner how the Enigma machine works. In the process, she struggled with a very Olin-esque dilemma: How do you design for people, not just for the sake of technology? In other words, how could she engage the average museum-goer? “I really struggled,” she says. “It was a very good learning experience. I realized I’d been designing for myself. I can understand the technical details of a circuit diagram and visualize it, but not everyone can.”

Tawes didn’t give up. “Though I’m studying to be an engineer, my passion for history runs too deep to be abandoned,” she says. Back at Olin, she jumped into trying to figure out how to recreate a working model of the Enigma during the group Principles of Engineering project last fall. She pitched the idea to her peers. After showing them her mock-up of a physical model, they took it on as a group project to create a full replica. 

The team set out to build an electromechanical system with electrical, mechanical and software components. With a $250 budget, they took their project through the stages of design, prototyping, testing and debugging. In six weeks, they’d produced a modern, interactive visualization of the historic Enigma machine's encryption process.

Although their class project is now over, Tawes is continuing to work on it and plans to loop back with the museum. “I’d love to keep working on the exhibit until it’s fully realized and make it understandable and interactive,” she says.

“This machine—and the fellowship—completely changed the trajectory of my Olin career,” she says. “Before, I never would have devoted so much time to a history-based project. But I fell in love with cryptography and intend to keep working on it until I see ‘Enigma expert’ next to my name in a museum. I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity that let me find this out about myself.”