Last September (2011) an unnamed collector payed over $208,000 at auction for an Enigma machine once used by the German military to encode and decode secret messages. Well, not as secret as they thought it turns out, but that didn’t affect the price. It sold for a record amount, beating the previous record set almost one year before of over $100,000. Historical significance and cool looks aside, what makes them worth so much?
Put the word ‘secret’ before anything and suddenly you’ve introduced a sense of mystery, or in some cases made something sinister. At the very least, you’ve made it more interesting. A secret society is always up to no good, and secret messages are most likely orders tied to secret operations carried out by secret operatives who belong to secret agencies. Not to mention secret identities, secret underground bases, secret recipes, and secret transmitters sending out coded messages to secret agents. Well, maybe not-so-secret transmitters or transmissions.
Mr. Blog of bmj2k.com (whose real identity we’ll keep secret) sent me this story from wired.com about a Russian shortwave radio station whose, quoting from the article, “…airtime was filled by a steady, almost maddening, series of inexplicable tones.” I won’t make the joke here referring to most FM stations in my area, but I do urge you to read that article. The short of it: that shortwave station is what is known as a numbers station.
Numbers stations generally broadcast artificially generated voices reading streams of numbers, words, letters (sometimes using a spelling alphabet), tunes or Morse code. They are in a wide variety of languages and the voices are usually female, although sometimes men’s or children’s voices are used.
That particular station was named the Buzzer, here’s a sample.
And here’s the “Lincolnshire Poacher,” a well known English station.
You can listen to more via The Conet Project
So the numbers, buzzers, squeals, squelches, and songs all add up to what? Secret codes. Maxwell Smart may have gotten his marching orders from a guy stuffed in a mailbox, but real spies are far more sneaky. They listen for them.
It has long been speculated, and was argued in court in one case, that these stations operate as a simple and foolproof method for government agencies to communicate with spies working undercover. According to this theory, the messages are encrypted with a one-time pad, to avoid any risk of decryption by the enemy. As evidence, numbers stations have changed details of their broadcasts or produced special, nonscheduled broadcasts coincident with extraordinary political events, such as the August Coup of 1991 in the Soviet Union. -Wikipedia
What makes this interesting? It’s not often we catch a glimpse of the secrets that reside in the shadows. We generally don’t know who lurks behind the cloak, or when their dagger may come unsheathed. Having an Enigma machine, or recording coded radio transmissions is to have an artifact from that world – to be in on the secret, even slightly, for a little while.
The Wikipedia page for numbers stations has tons more info, and links to other sites.