A long-lost codebreaking machine used by the Nazis during World War II to communicate top secret messages has been found in a shed in England, after its owner put it on sale on eBay for just £9.50 ($13.89).
Known as the Lorenz machine, the contraption played a major role in shaping the course of the war, particularly once the so-called “boffins” and “Wrens” working for British intelligence at Bletchley Park managed to crack the machine’s code.
The device consisted of two main components: a Lorenz SZ42 cipher machine, into which Hitler and his top generals would feed messages in plain German. Using a mechanism consisting of 12 wheels, the cipher would then encrypt the message, making it unintelligible to anyone who intercepted it – unless they happened to possess a Lorenz teleprinter.
When connected to the cipher, the teleprinter would then decrypt the message, enabling it to be read. Though the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park is currently in possession of a cipher – acquired on long-term loan from Norway’s Armed Forces Museum – the teleprinter had until now eluded the establishment’s curators.
However, when an eagle-eyed volunteer spotted what appeared to be the keyboard of a Lorenz teleprinter on eBay, representatives of the museum decided to pay its owner a visit.
According to John Wetter, who also volunteers at the museum, the machine was being kept in a shed and had “rubbish all over it.” After confirming it as genuine, “we said “thank you very much, how much was it again?” She said “£9.50,” so we said “here’s a £10 note – keep the change!”
One of only four Lorenz machines thought to have survived the war, the teleprinter bears the same serial number as the cipher on show at the museum. However, the gadget is missing the motor that would once have enabled it to decode the messages coming through the cipher.
A Lorenz cipher, modeled by Bletchley Park Wrens Betty O’Connell and Irene Dixon. National Museum of Computing
Inspired by their chance encounter, officials from the museum are now calling on volunteers and members of the public to keep a look-out for anything that could be the motor, either languishing in basements or on sale on the Internet.
“It looks like an electric motor in black casing with two shafts on each side, which drive the gears of the Lorenz machine,” explains Wetter.
During the war, Bletchley Park boffin Bill Tutte managed to work out how the Lorenz worked, without ever having even seen one. Thanks to his genius insight, fellow researcher Tommy Flowers was able to build the Colossus computer, which could decode the encrypted messages in double-quick time.
It is thought that this enabled the Allies to eavesdrop on Nazi communications in the run-up to D-Day, allowing them to confirm that the German’s were not expecting them to invade the beaches of Normandy. As such, it is often described as more crucial to the war effort than the more famous Enigma machine.