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Enigma Machine Collection Recalls Computer Science Victory

AN Enigma machine sits inside a display case at Carnegie Mellon University’s Hunt Library in Oakland, Pa. Photo: Nate Smallwood/AP

AN Enigma machine sits inside a display case at Carnegie Mellon University’s Hunt Library in Oakland, Pa. Photo: Nate Smallwood/AP

By AARON AUPPERLEE, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Carnegie Mellon University will hire a researcher from the Library of Congress to help it decode a collection that includes two WWII German Enigma machines.

The university wants to encourage the study of 19th and 20th century computers, calculators, encryption machines and other materials related to the history of computer science.

“When we look back and we see this, we see who we remember,” Andrew Moore, dean of CMU’s School of Computer Science, said, adding his students are increasingly asking for courses about the history of the field. “We see people who took technology to save lives and save the world.”

Pamela McCorduck, a prolific author on the history and future of artificial intelligence and the widow of Joseph Traub, a renowned computer scientist and the former head of CMU’s Computer Science Department, permanently loaned to the university a collection of early computers, books and letters. The collection, anchored by a three-rotor and four-rotor Enigma machine, is on display in the Fine and Rare Book Room in CMU’s Hunt Library in Oakland. The gift makes CMU one of a few institutions in the United States with Enigma machines. Even fewer display them.

McCorduck said she hopes the collection shows students that computer science has a history of not only of inventions, innovations and breakthroughs but of the people surrounding them.

“I hope that it enhances everyone’s understanding of where this field comes from,” McCorduck said. “It has a wonderful, rich history.”

Moore said he asks each first-year student in the School of Computer Science to see the Traub and McCorduck collection at the library. He said he hopes it will persuade new students to study computer science not just to go off to work at Facebook or some other big tech company mainly focused on entertainment but to aspire to do something with real impact.

Keith Webster, dean of CMU’s libraries, announced the university’s intent to hire the researcher at the conclusion of a discussion on Thursday about the collection, McCorduck and Traub’s contributions to computer science, WWII codebreaking and artificial intelligence. The panel, moderated by Webster, included McCorduck; Mary Shaw, a renowned computer science professor at CMU; and Julia Parsons, who graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1942 and worked as a codebreaker for the Navy during WWII.

“We were day after day trying to decide what was in the messages,” Parsons said. “And sometimes we got it and sometimes we didn’t.”

Parsons worked on figuring out how to set up the Enigma machine each day to decode messages sent to German U-Boats. She was there when codebreakers picked up on the weather forecast crib that helped bust the German encryption wide open.

“It helped bring about the end of the war,” Parsons said.

Moore thanked Parsons for her work. His parents grew up in Britain during the war, had their homes destroyed by Nazi bombs and barely escaped with their lives, Moore said. They spoke about the end of the war as the most important and extraordinary moment in their lives.

“It was heroes like you that did that,” Moore said.

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