This Day in History

On July 9, 1941, a team of British cryptologists decoded the top secret Enigma machine, which the German army used to encrypt its communications during World War II. This allowed allied forces to gain instant intelligence of Germany's ground-to-air military actions along the war's Eastern front.

Before its decryption, the Enigma device represented an impossible decoding problem for the Allied forces. They had been able to break a lot of the encoded messages uses along the Western front, but until July 9, 1941, the machine's Eastern front messages remained untranslatable.

Enigma Machine Originally Intended for Business Communications

The Enigma machine was invented by a Dutchman named Hugo Koch in 1919. The device was not that different from a typewriter in appearance and it was originally intended for communicating confidential business messages. However, Germany started to use the device to send and receive its war-related messages, and Germany's military commanders wrongly assumed it was impossible to decode the messages.

The British soon proved the German's wrong by decoding Enigma messages very early in the war -- as early as Germany's occupation of Poland. In fact, British forces were able to decode almost all the messages used by the Germans during their invasions of Holland and France.

However, it was only later that the British were able to translate Eastern front messages. From July 9 through the years that followed, more keys were broken, which revealed additional top-secret information. The decoded messages were shared with Russia, and likewise, Russia shared the information it was able to decode with the Western front.

Famed Enigma Codebreaker Alan Touring Becomes a Gay Rights Figure

The decoding of the Enigma device is largely attributed to the efforts of one mathematician, Alan Touring. Some say that without Touring's work, the Allied forces may not have gained the advantage needed to win World War II. In spite of his work, Touring was later "outed" as a homosexual, a lifestyle that was against the law in England in the 1940s. During the years that followed, Touring was subjected to chemical castration, an extremely inhumane criminal punishment relating to his homosexuality-related conviction of "gross indecency." Two years later, Touring died of cyanide poisoning, which some say was suicide, but his family says was an accident.

Touring's treatment following his work to break the Enigma device is viewed as horribly unfair, especially considering the fact he played such vital part in winning the war, and the fact that he is now considered to be the "father of modern computing." In 2013, Touring was finally honored by receiving a posthumous pardon for his criminal convictions that related to being gay.