A Paradox Wrapped in an Enigma (Machine)

Being a teacher by day, I go through quite a few books. This week, my students and I are wrapping up The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Since it’s the only major piece of nonfiction that we read during the year, I love to ground it for my middle schoolers. Yeah, they’re learning about World War II in history right now, but I like to make that connection that this isn’t just a story. This is real.

One of our most recent adventures: the German enigma machine.

Okay, so it was one of those moments that went better in practice at home and in my mind than it did in the classroom, but that doesn’t make it any less cool.

While the workings of this coding typewriter are complex, the concept behind how it works isn’t (once you have the hang of it) and can be done with just four strips of paper.

Enigma Machine

The basic idea: three rotors are set in specific positions and kept there. (Those are the three white strips with the letters and lines on them in the picture.) You then start on the far right side of the “machine” with the letter you want to encode/decode. As you pass through the rotors, the letter changes. Once you hit the far left side, you start backwards. By the time you reach the right side again, the letter is encoded/decoded.

“It takes a long time to do one letter,” my students complained.

“Which is why they used a typewriter to do the work,” I responded.

But you don’t have to have the typewriter to do the work. In fact, even though it does take some time, it’s quite fun to play with and leave secret messages!

Interested in checking out this paper enigma machine? Click here!

And if you do decide to make one (which, by the way, only requires one piece of computer paper), here’s a message for you:




8 responses to “A Paradox Wrapped in an Enigma (Machine)

  • change it up editing

    What a great idea for connecting history and literature in a very hands-on way!

    • SB (Bryna) Roberts

      Thanks! It’s one of the most fun ways I’ve found to do it so far. Well, besides playing a shortened variation on Risk between the British and the Saxons when discussing The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff. It’s hard to go wrong with imaginary annihilation. : )

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    The “this is real” thing applies to Anne Frank in two ways, really, sort of two different levels. On one level, unlike fiction, it’s portraying real history, not made up events. On another level, it’s not a work of literature at all, it’s not a writer adopting the POV of Anne Frank, it’s actually her diary. I imagine that’s an interesting distinction to convey to a class.

    The Enigma machine is interesting, too. I’ve done some cut-ups (experimental writing), and I’ve always enjoyed learning about different ways of slicing and dicing text (for various purposes — artistic and otherwise :-) ).

  • C.B. Wentworth

    That is so cool. I may have to steal the idea for my high school students. They love stuff like this. :-)

    • SB (Bryna) Roberts

      Please do! Hopefully they catch on more quickly than most of my 8th graders. : )

      Oh, and a tip: Tape the “machine” (aka, the bigger strip of paper with the “input/output” and “reflector”) first and then wrap the “rotors” over top to tape them. It makes it much easier to ensure that the rotors are snug enough to stay in place but lose enough to slide.

  • Xenoglossia | The Everyday Epic

    […] While my knowledge of languages I’ve never studied isn’t as great as my seven-year-old self wanted to believe, it hasn’t quenched my interest in other languages. Or the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is literally one of the most incredible things I’ve ever played with. (It’s right up there with the German Enigma Machine.) […]

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