Father and son share passion for WWII enigma


DR. THOMAS PERERA, right, bought his first Enigma cypher machine at a flea market in Germany. Unknown to him, his impulse purchase would define this passion with his son, Dan, for the last 35 years. Photo courtesy of Thomas Perera

THE WORLD WAR II German Enigma cypher machine. Photo courtesy of Thomas Perera

DURING THE SECOND World War, this was the breakthrough encryption device used by the German military to code and decode telegraph messages. Photo courtesy of Thomas Perera

HANCOCK — It was in 1985, at a flea market in Friedrichshafen, Germany, when Dr. Thomas Perera first laid eyes on a German Enigma cypher machine: the breakthrough encryption device used by the German military during the Second World War to code and decode telegraph messages. Although seldom known by the public at that time, Enigma machines were an important historical icon and technological innovation in the field of cryptology.

Perera, a young professor of Neuroscience, un-aware of the Enigma machine’s historical value, bought the device on the spot. He paid $6,000 for it; equivalent to $14,200 today.

“I realized after I bought the Enigma machine that I had a piece of equipment that was incredibly important for world history. I started hunting for [Enigma machines], restoring them and researching them.” Today, the mission of his company, Enigma Museum, is to find, repair, document, and sell German Enigma machines to museums and collectors around the world. Tom Perera and his son, Dan Perera, are recognized globally as having created an extensive archive of information on German Enigma Cypher machines. The Enigma Museum is the only entity that “maintains a list of every known enigma machine.”

“People are excited about [Enigma] because it was the first real encryption device that came into widespread use,” said Tom Perera. “It was the father of encryption technology.” German Engineer Arthur Scherbius patented Enigma in 1918 for civilian use, specifically for corporate communications. The electromechanical device is about the size of a typewriter, and uses a series of cascading rotors and plugboard wires to encrypt messages, letter by letter. These iterative rotors and wire connections create a systemic encryption path so that when a keyboard key is pressed, that selected letter is changed 9 times before the key’s “code” letter is chosen and illuminated character on the Enigma’s lampboard. This complexity means there are 10114 possible encryption paths (septentrigintillion possibilities). For scale, Tom Perera noted that there are only 1082 atoms in the observable universe.

Operators would encrypt a message by pre-setting all the rotors and plugboard wires to a decided specification called a “day’s key”, typing their message and recording the lampboard illuminated letters. The message could then be sent via Morse code to a receiving station, and the message could be decoded by setting the enigma machine to the same day’s key as on the sending Enigma.

The German military quickly realized the power of Enigma’s encryption technology, and in the 1920’s, the state took interest in Scherbius’s Enigma for wartime communication security. Most Historians agree that the Enigma machine was one of the most important technologies in the second world war, due to its ability to privatize communications within the German military. However, as early as 1933, Polish and British forces “broke” Enigma, enabling the Allies to intercept and decipher messages from the German military. This was the feature of the 2014 film, The Imitation Game, which tells the story of the team of British mathematicians at Bletchley Park, London that managed to forge a method of decryption that “broke” Enigma.

It should come as no surprise that both Tom and Dan Perera have a deep interest in encryption and communication technologies, which catalyzed the formation of Enigma Museum, founded in 1987. In addition to teaching and researching the Electrical Coding Strategies and Neuroscience of the human brain for more than four decades at Columbia and Montclair State Universities, Tom Perera has been an avid collector of telegraph keys and HAM radio equipment since he was young. Dan Perera has also been interested in similar technologies.

“I have always enjoyed tinkering with and repairing mechanical and electrical devices,” said Dan Perera. He also said that Enigma machines are special because of their technological breakthrough.  “Prior to this machine, encryption was done by hand, and was relatively easy to break.”

Around 99 percent of all enigma machines used by the German’s have been destroyed. There are only 281 known enigma machines in existence. Because of the recent spike in interest in Enigma machines, due to its feature in The Imitation Game (2014) and the release of declassified Enigma documents in the last few decades, the market demand for these encryption machines has skyrocketed. The Pereras figure themselves as “Enigma hunters”, searching down remaining hidden Enigma machines around the world, repairing units and finding new owners for their machines. The Enigma Museum’s most recent project was the restoration of an enigma machine found in Antwerp, Belgium in a resident’s backyard. The Perera’s will have anywhere from 1 to a handful of Enigma machines they work on restoring at any given time. Dan Perera does most of the restoration work on enigma machines in Vermont, storing the devices at an off-property site.

The rest of their work includes sharing their discoveries, projects, and knowledge of Enigma machines through their website, their books and lectures, as well as finding customers for their restoration projects of Enigma machines. They document all of their work and compile information on their website (EnigmaMuseum.com). Both Tom and Dan Perera talk annually at a conference in Germany every year, as well as a domestic conference in North Carolina. They also travel globally to talk about Enigma machines at MIT, NSA’s national cryptologic museum, Bletchley Park in London, and local colleges in the Northeast.

Middlebury College Mathematics Professor Michael Olinick has invited Dr. Perera to lecture at Middlebury twice since 2010. “Dr. Perera is one of the world’s leading experts on communication devices with special focus on cryptology machines,” wrote Olinick in an email. “[Perera] brings numerous examples of Enigma machines [to lectures], many of which he has restored to perfect working condition. Addison County is lucky to have such a treasure.”

Tom Perera grew up in New York City, and completed his undergraduate degree at Columbia University in 1961. One summer as a child, however, he attended Camp Killooleet in Hancock, and fell in love with Vermont.

“I went to Killooleet and loved it. So as soon as I could, I bought a farm in Vermont. I would fly back and forth between my job at Columbia and Vermont every weekend for 35 years.” Perera lives on the same plot of land today, and continues to work for Enigma Museum, deep into retirement.

One of Dr. Perera’s most recent trips was to the place he purchased his first Enigma machine: Friedrichshafen, Germany. From June 21st-23rd of this year, Perera attended the 7th Annual Enigma Forum with much of his Enigma equipment, giving lectures throughout the weekend. It was 34 years ago that he made that decision to purchase the flea market Enigma machine.

“The Enigma machine looked really too expensive for me,” said Perera, recalling walking away from the market, although thinking, “I better buy that.” He turned around, and purchased one of the few Enigma machines still in known existence today. “It was just love at first sight.”

For more information, visit enigmamuseum.com.

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