Weird History

A Man Bought A WWII Enigma Machine For $114 And Sold It For $50k 

Kellie Kreiss
8.4k views 4 items

Anyone who has ever visited a flea market or second-hand shop is familiar with their inherent chaos of junk and gems, but few people actually have the eye to distinguish between the two. However, if you happen to be a cryptography professor wandering through a flea market in Bucharest, Romania, then you might just get lucky and snag yourself a WWII Enigma cipher machine.

And yes, this really happened. But the unnamed professor who purchased what the vendor believed to be just a normal typewriter didn't just fix it up and make sure it worked - he flipped it and made a hefty profit off of it in June 2017. 

So, why is this Enigma machine such an enigma? Not only was it used by the Germans to send encrypted, secret messages during WWII, but its downfall - thanks to Alan Turing's development of a decryption machine known as "BOMBE" - also played a huge part in the Germans' ultimate defeat.

The Guy Who Found It Only Paid $114 For It
The Guy Who Found It Onl... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list A Man Bought A WWII Enigma Machine For $114 And Sold It For $50k
Photo:  brewbooks/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

When the professor of cryptography happened across what everyone else suspected was an old typewriter, he apparently immediately realized that he was moments away from having his hands on an authentic 1941 German Wehrmacht Enigma I WWII cipher machine - in nearly mint condition, no less.

Without letting on what he knew about this secret-making machine, he purchased it for a measly 100 euros ($114 USD). Once he got the device home, he spent a good amount of time learning just how it worked and fixing up any loose ends in the process. However, he didn't keep the WWII relic for long and instead popped it up on a popular art auction website called Artmark to see how much he could get for it. With a starting bid of 9,000 euros ($10,300), the rare device's auction bids suddenly skyrocketed to a final selling price of 45,000 euros ($51,500), making the professor a nearly 45,000% profit.

What Even Is An Enigma Machine, Really?
What Even Is An Enigma M... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list A Man Bought A WWII Enigma Machine For $114 And Sold It For $50k
Photo: Walther/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Simply put, an Enigma cipher machine is an encryption device that - in theory - allows you to send secret messages over enemy lines that only someone who knows your code can then read. Obviously, the benefits of using this device during periods of conflict were exponential, particularly in WWI and WWII; however, the destruction that they were able to foster was also devastating. After all, it's impossible to prepare for a strike that you don't know is coming.

The Enigma machine works by bringing together a "set of rotating disks called rotors arranged adjacently along a spindle," which are then activated by a series of keystrokes on the accompanying keyboard, with each rotor only moving "one twenty-sixth of a full rotation" for every key pressed. According to The Guardian, this creates "more than 17,000 different combinations before the encryption process repeats itself."

The result is a nearly unintelligible jumble of letters that could only be translated if both the sender and receiver of the message had their machines configured to the same settings, making them nearly impossible to decode for potential enemies or interceptors.

The Germans Used Them To Send Encrypted Messages During WWII
The Germans Used Them To... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list A Man Bought A WWII Enigma Machine For $114 And Sold It For $50k
Photo: Unknown/National Museum of the US Air Force/Public Domain

In WWII, the Enigma cipher machine was the lesser-known star of the show, as it served as the primary method of communication for the German armies during much of the conflict and was, in some ways, one of their most powerful tools against the Allies. Commercially developed in the early 1920s by German engineer Arthur Scherbius, the Enigma machine gained the attention of the German military and was quickly developed into the complex version that gained widespread use during WWII.

In order to ensure that their messages would be undecipherable, the Germans would change the settings on their Enigma machines on a daily basis, making Allied code-breaking efforts all but fruitless - that is, until they managed to get a German spy to feed them the daily settings.

The Allies Developed A Decryption Machine To Discover German Secrets
The Allies Developed A D... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list A Man Bought A WWII Enigma Machine For $114 And Sold It For $50k
Photo: Unknown/National Museum of the US Air Force/Public Domain

Early on in the conflict, Allies realized that they had an enemy in the Enigma machine and that if they were to be able to stop the Axis powers - or the Germans, in particular - they would have to find a way to break the intercepted codes. 

This is where the assistance from a German spy named Hans-Thilo Schmidt came into play. Shmidt was not only able to intercept messages being sent by the Germans, but he was also able to get his hands on many of the codebooks and Enigma machines that led to the development of the BOMBE. The latter was an electro-mechanical machine that could be hooked up with multiple Enigma cipher machines containing different settings. It could then decrypt the Germans' messages in time to prevent an enemy's strike.