Tuesday, May 12, 2015

May 12, 1941 – Z3 Computer Applied to German Codes

In a stunning display of modern technology, Konrad Zuse presented his Z3 machine to the Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt (German Laboratory for Aviation). An electromechanical computer, the Z3 was built to analyze wing flutter, calculating vast collections of data that would further improve plane designs. With some two thousand relays, the Z3 processed up to twenty-two bits data at five to ten Hertz. It even offered external tape memory, meaning a new program could be created without any mechanical remodeling to the machine.

A member of the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, the air force high command,sat in on the presentation and raised a question, “Can we use it for our codes?”

As the war continued to escalate, encoding and code-breaking had become some of the most important matters to ensure victory. The Kriegsmarine B-Dienst had made notable success breaking British naval codes and even those of the neutral Americans, giving predatory U-boat attacks an effective edge as they knew where all British ships were at sea. For defense, German forces used the daunting enigma machine to create codes, which was considered the utmost in encryption technology. The rotors inside the machine created a tri-fold system of encryption that could be reproduced in seconds by another Engima machine while being virtually indecipherable to enemy code-breakers. The Battle of Britain had showed to some air officers, however, that the codes might not be as unbreakable as they were told.

In fact, the British program Ultra had long cracked the Enigma code. Polish cryptologists at the Biuro Szyfrow had been reading German codes since 1932, and the new implementation of an updated code ten times more complicated in 1939 prompted them to reach out to French and British offices. Just over a month before the war began, Poles delivered handmade duplicates of the Enigma machines and, most importantly, their methods for cracking to Bletchley Park.

With the Luftwaffe funding Zuse’s machines, he was able to build a staff and catch the attention of the Wehrmacht, who immediately began placing miniature Z-machines with the armies. Ultra found itself bewildered by the intensely complex codes, which translated to defeats on the front. In North Africa in September of 1942, the Battle of El Alamein was called Britain’s “Second Dunkirk” when Rommel’s armies, despite being nearly exhausted of fuel, drove the Eighth Army into the Mediterranean Sea. The resulting loss of Egypt and devastating Battle of the Suez Canal are touted as two of the biggest disasters of World War II.

Code-computing became a shadow arms-race in the midst of the war. Technologists hurried to outpace one another in faster processing speeds and adaptability of memory. Germans continued to apply the technology to weapons such as guidance on their V-2 rockets and the bomber-hunting V-3 that knocked enemy planes from the air. Americans brought computers to their Los Alamos laboratories for better calculations of atomic blasts, while the British improved integrated sonar detection.

The War in Europe came to an end in 1947 with the Soviet seizure of Berlin. With British and American armies long bogged down in Africa and the first invasion of Sicily aborted, the western Allies contributed primarily air support while struggling to gain a foothold in what Churchill described as Europe’s “soft underbelly.” The Soviets, meanwhile, forced their way through heavy German defense, including the Battle of the Bulge, which spanned nearly all of occupied Poland. German resources finally gave out, bringing an end to the war that many feared would be atomic, as was seen in Japan.

After the war, another burst of development came as the West attempted to catch up with the work of Soviet scientists and those captured from Germany. Miniaturization of technology brought integrated circuits, which in the West was spun off to consumer markets. Computers were applied to banking, weather-mapping, nutrition and medicine, communications, and more. Wired and cellular integration gave handheld devices the ability to converse on a myriad of levels by the mid-1980s, including in virtual reality through headset broadcasting devices. By the turn of the millennium, just about everyone on the planet carried their personal computers, creating a digital universe that seemed to envelop more thought than the prospect of ever sending a human to the moon.


In reality, the Z3 was only applied to engineering matters. Improvements to the Z3 like fully electronic switches were denied as “not war important.” After the war, Zuse completed his Z4, which served as the first commercial computer in Europe, being sold to the Swiss. Zuse continued to develop leaps in computing, like the magnetic-storage memory for the Z22 in 1955. German forces instituted the Lorenz cipher in 1941, which was easily cracked by Ultra’s Colossus computers.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. A more minimal tweak to history which would still have had major implications was if the Luftwaffe officer had the idea "if the Allies have anything like this then the Enigma isn't as secure as we think." If the Germans seriously worried that Enigma was cracked, they could have done low-tech tweaks such as adding a layer of super-encipherment to Enigma which would have largely thwarted the crib-based British attacks. It wouldn't be necessary to imagine practical mini Z-machines, which would have been beyond the capabilities of 1940s technology.


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