Friday, March 30, 2007

The Secret in Building 26: The Untold Story of How America Broke the Final U-Boat Enigma Code


March 30, 2007

The Secret in Building 26: The Untold Story of How America Broke the Final U-Boat Enigma Code, by Jim DeBrosse and Colin Burke, Random House. 2005. $14.95. ISBN: 0-375-75995-6. (

During World War II, my father worked within the U.S. Army’s Signal Corp as part of a code-breaking group at Arlington Hall Station in Virginia. So, I heard many stories about codes, ciphers and cryptography. My dad ensured I received the latest code-breaking and military-intelligence books as birthday and Christmas presents. While on a recent trip, I found this interesting book and once I started reading, I could not put it down. Engineers with an interest in the origins of electronic computers and military history will enjoy this fascinating book. Even if you know much about the Ultra intercepts and their role in the Battle of the Atlantic, you will find new material here and a new perspective on American code-breaking work.

When books discuss breaking the Enigma codes used by German military services, they focus on efforts at the UK’s Bletchley Park and its electromechanical “Bombes,” built to decipher Enigma messages. Only recently have historians discovered the role the National Cash Register Company (NCR) had in building code-breaking machines at its facilities in Dayton, Ohio. Until the mid ‘90’s, most materials relate to the NCR efforts remained classified or buried in unindexed archives. Based on declassified materials and oral histories, the authors have put together the amazing story of how engineers at NCR developed decoding machines that contributed to the defeat of Hitler’s Germany.

In this book, the authors explore not only the technology behind the US-made Bombes but the people involved; from the lab workers who build prototypes and production equipment, to the U.S. Navy WAVES who kept the machines working, to people such as Joseph R. Desch, the chief engineer for the “U.S. Naval Computing Machinery Laboratory” at NCR. Their stories help readers experience the urgency that drives engineers and cryptanalysts to quickly solve problems and create working machines.

Although some history books describe cooperation between British and American code breakers and scientists, this book adds greatly to the analysis of collaborations and tensions between groups on both sides of the Atlantic. At many times in this story, the frustrations experienced by the various teams seem almost palpable.

Americans should understand the large role their citizens played in defeating the German submarines that threatened to cut off supplies to the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, much of the NCR work remains classified and little, if any, hardware from the original machines remains. As of the book’s publication, Building 26 remained in place, but marked only with a 60-word plaque placed by the IEEE. Thankfully, this book illuminates the heroic work of many people at NCR and in the military.



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