03 August, 2005

Review: M-209 simulator by Dirk Rijmenants

I've finally got round to trying out Dirk Rijmenants' M-209 simulator. The M-209 (right) was a portable cipher machine used by the US in World War II (and afterwards), and was originally designed by Swedish engineer Boris Hagelin (even more info here).

For me, the M-209 (and related Hagelin machines which use the same mechanism) is quite possibly the most fascinating crypto machine ever made. Part of the appeal is that it's completely mechanical (unlike the Enigma machine, which was both mechanical and electrical in operation). From the outside, an M-209 appears to be a rather boring, green, lunchbox-shaped tin, but inside there's a fiendish array of pinwheels, gears, cogs, lugs, bars and other bewildering mechanical components. Maybe I'm just unduly scared by moving parts (I'm a CompSci/Maths person), but these machines certainly look how you'd want your cipher machine to look if you were trying to dissuade the enemy from even starting an attempt to crack your codes.

Appearances can be deceiving, of course, and the truth is that the M-209 was not particularly secure, and certainly less so than Enigma. In WWII, the Germans were reading M-209 traffic, although the machines were used only for low-level tactical communications. The machines were also used by the US in the Korean war, and devices using the same sort of "pin-and-lug" mechanism stayed in use even into the 1970s in various parts of the world.

Anyway, getting back to the simulator: if you want to tinker with this piece of cryptographic history, and if you don't fancy shelling out the USD$1000-4000 for which antique M-209's typically exchange hands on eBay, this excellent freeware software emulation of the machine (left) is the next best thing (for Windows only, sadly). Dirk wasn't content merely to reproduce the cryptographic operation of the device (which is more-or-less a simple stream cipher), but has painstakingly copied the appearance and construction of the M-209, even down to the screws. To operate, you have to turn the various (on-screen) knobs and handles, and the output is printed on (on-screen) tape, just like the real thing. Stuart Savory has tested the machine's output against that of a museum's M-209 and found them to be compatible. Being so faithful to the original has an inevitable downside, however, as the M-209 isn't a particularly intuitive device to operate, and you'd probably need to do some reading first if you're not already familiar with the machine. Besides the help files, another option would be to watch the original US Army M-209 training video.

Dirk has also created an excellent Enigma simulator in the same vein, and I'm looking forward to what he comes up with next!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,
By writing and sharing this freeware, I hope to get others interested in the wonderfull world of ciphers and codes. Thanks for the review and the nice comments on my crypto sims ;-) By the way, I would like to make use of this comment to promote your very nice Cryptotourism site on http://tourism.wikicities.com/wiki/Cryptotourism

Happy Codings, Dirk

4:55 pm  
Blogger College Boy said...

Whit Diffie said that he would like to make a beer stein crypto machine that is compatible with an old NSA rotor machine. He furthermore claims to have done the engineering drawings for such a device but found it too expensive to operate. He thinks it would be funny to give such a thing out as a Crypto souvenir. He was probably responsible for the IACR pocketknives at Crypto '93.


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Hi Mike,
re Whit Diffie and the beer cipher:
Sometimes we 'make' US civil war cipher wheels in the pub from a couple of beer mats and hand them out to the tourists who probably think we're spooks :-)

I wonder if that'd be legal in France?

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