US museum lets ‘Imitation Game’ fans encrypt their own codes

NATICK, Mass. (AP) — The Oscar-nominated film “The Imitation Game” may fudge some facts and amp up the drama, but there’s still a lot it gets right about the Allied effort to crack the Germans’ sophisticated communications code during World War II, says the owner of one of America’s largest collections of Enigma encryption machines.

Kenneth Rendell, a historian and collector who operates the Museum of World War II, says the movie’s biggest achievements are introducing the critical wartime contributions of pioneering British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing to new audiences and showcasing the legendary complexity of the Nazi code machines.

“It’s too bad that many of the folks depicted in the movie did not live long enough to see their story told,” Rendell said Thursday from his sizable museum, which is tucked in a business park about 20 miles west of downtown Boston.

“The Imitation Game,” which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, also shows the importance of the “intellectual side” of warfare, he said, and how technologies like computers, radar, jet engines and plastics were developed or refined during the war years.

Turing, who died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning, is widely considered a founding father of computer science. His work led to the development of concepts like artificial intelligence.

Rendell says the movie makes some missteps, including its portrayal of Turing’s struggles as a gay man in the war effort and how it downplays the significant role of women — not just Knightley’s character — at Britain’s famed code-breaking center, Bletchley Park.

“All of this drama about him being blackmailed during the war because he was gay, it wasn’t true. In those circles, I just don’t think anyone cared,” Rendell said. “And there were a lot of women breaking codes at Bletchley Park.”

Critics and other historians have noted other liberties in the movie, which takes its name from a test the real Turing developed to see if machines could exhibit human intelligence.

For example, the name of Turing’s code-breaking machine in the film is Christopher, apparently after a childhood crush. It was actually called Victory.

Rendell suggests Turing’s mathematical genius was helped, in no small part, by human error. The Nazis were either too confident no one would crack their code, he says, or they simply became careless over time.

“Human nature was really a big element,” he says. “Because it was supposed to be unbreakable, people relaxed.”

Rendell says he began collecting Enigma machines, many of which resemble a round-button typewriter encased in a wooden box, when their existence first became public long after WWII.

Among his prized possessions are two Enigma machines that museum patrons can use to encrypt and decrypt messages themselves.

The museum, which was established in 1999 and contains over 7,000 artifacts, displays nine Enigma machines, the largest private collection on display in the U.S, according to Rendell.

Only the National Security Agency, which owns more than 50 machines and loans them out to museums around the country, has more, he said.

“The Imitation Game” is up for best picture and seven other Oscars. The 87th Academy Awards ceremony airs Sunday night.

 

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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