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Enigma device used in ‘The Imitation Game’ housed in Chicago

At the center of Benedict Cumberbatch’s new film “The Imitation Game,” opening in Chicago on Friday, is a typewriter-like, ahead-of-its-time gadget called an Enigma. During World War II, the German Navy used it to encrypt and decrypt military messages sent via Morse code.

When a German U-505 submarine was blown from the water by Allied ships as it skulked along the West African coast in early June of 1944, it was found to contain two Enigma “ciphers” — the same kind that Cumberbatch’s character, a British genius named Alan Turing (known as the father of modern computers), who had a big hand in cracking thousands of Nazi codes per day with an electro-mechanical invention called the “Bombe,” helped develop with a team of other brainiacs. Their efforts prevented untold numbers of Allied deaths.

During a recent interview with Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker in New York, Cumberbatch was surprised to learn that an Enigma resided in Chicago along with the U-505 in an expansive hall at the Museum of Science and Industry.

“I had no idea,” he said. “Since making this film, I’m hearing about Enigma machines popping up at all kinds of places.”

An overstatement, perhaps (there reportedly are only 350 or so in existence), but the actor vowed to swing by MSI on his next visit to town, so look for Sherlock wandering around if you happen to be on the premises.

As the MSI’s head curator and director of collections Kathleen McCarthy explained, standing near the museum’s one original Enigma that was formerly operated from the U-505, the device’s keyboard was connected to electronic circuits that drove a series of rotors. Pressing a letter moved the rotors. And because each letter produced a different value every time it was pressed, breaking the resulting code (sender and receiver had identical code books that were revised frequently and printed in water-soluble ink that disappeared if the books got wet — i.e. sank) was extremely challenging.

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“That kind of encrypted coding is something that we’re still talking about today,” McCarthy said. “When you think about two computers talking to each other and sending messages back and forth, there’s a lot of encryption that goes on. So when you see ‘The Imitation Game,’ it’s a trip back in history to see a problem that we actually are still dealing with and is very contemporary to us. Every day, you can read in the news about worrying about computer security and you read about hackers and breaking code.

“So this is really an ongoing story in our daily lives today.”