06 January, 2006

Marian Rejewski on Wikipedia

The Wikipedia article on Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski is currently going through the process to become a so-called "Featured Article", vetted entries that are eventually promoted on the main page and elsewhere.

Feel free to read the article and add any comments. The page for the Featuring process can be found here.

Despite having something of a girl's name, Rejewski was a veritable geek hero, solving the wiring of the German Enigma machine using some funky maths. It's more than possible that, without Rejewski's results, the British at Bletchley Park would have had little, if any, success with Enigma.

Rejewski also had a more exciting wartime experience than his counterparts at Bletchley Park, who were all off playing rounders in relative safety. From September 1940, Rejewski worked with a small unit on breaking Nazi ciphers from within occupied (well, Vichy) France, under the continual threat of discovery and arrest. After being nearly discovered by a detector van equipped with a radio antenna, the unit was evacuated. Aided by the French resistance, Rejewski worked his way to the border and attempted to cross over into Spain. He didn't have much luck at this point: robbed by his guide at gunpoint, captured by Spanish police only hours after crossing the border, and then interred for three months in prison.

After his release, he made his way to Britain. You might assume he would join the codebreakers at Bletchley Park on Enigma, since their work had built on his. Instead, he was assigned to a unit working on low-level codes; a decision that one former British codebreaker described as "like using racehorses to pull wagons". It's difficult to tell what motivated this apparent injustice -- perhaps a need for security, particularly since the British had developed more advanced techniques than those of Rejewski, and the future of Poland itself was uncertain. It's also possible that the relevant authorities did not know of the Polish contribution to the British work. Most of the few that had known were no longer immediately involved with Bletchley Park.

Regardless, Rejewski deserves to be remembered as one of the "greats" in crypto history.


Blogger Dirk Rijmenants said...

I believe one of his greatest efforts was to accept not beeing employed in BP, and keeping the silence for such long time after the war. He never got the deserved aknowledgment for his remarkable work, btw just as many BP veterans didn' get it :-(

8:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Marian' is a men's name in Polish.

Anyway, I'm happy that some Brits are starting to recognise that it was the Poles who cracked the enigma! A few years ago there was a film made on how the Brits cracked it and it caused quite a bit of anger among our community. Many in my school still deny it was the Poles.

7:35 pm  
Blogger Matt Crypto said...


> 'Marian' is a men's name in
> Polish.

Yeah, I know ;-) I was just having a little Anglocentric fun, please forgive me.

The film you're referring to was Enigma, and I remember much of the anger was that the Polish character turned out to be a traitor, even though in reality Bletchley Park owed a great deal to the Polish pioneers.

I believe it's accurate to say that the British "cracked" Enigma, as did the Poles; but the Poles did it first, of course, and gave their work to the British. But the truth is Enigma wasn't something you could crack once like an egg, and then it was solved forever: you had to crack it each day, for each different communications network. What's more, the Germans continually improved the security of their machine, so new techniques had to be brought in to keep up with the changes. Personally, I think there's enough credit to go around.

Happily, a lot more of the recent publications in the UK give at least a nod to the Polish work when the subject of Enigma comes up. Sorry to hear about the ignorance at your school, though.

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