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A store in Peekskill, New York, has an interesting encryption machine on sale. Can my readers help to find information about the background of this device?

As frequent readers of this blog know, Google is one of my main sources of information. When last Wednesday I was googling for vintage cipher technology, I ran across a web page that displays a very unusual encryption machine.

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This website is operated by a vintage electrics store named Radio Guy Gallery in Peekskill, NY. The town Peekskill immediately sounded familiar to me. Peekskill is located close to the home place of my friend Richard SantaColoma. When I visited him last year, I took the train from New York City to Peekskill station, where Richard picked me up. Peekskill is situated about an hour north of Manhattan on the Hudson River.

I immediately informed Richard about the machine I had discovered. Even on the same day he drove to the nearby Radio Guy Gallery. He talked to Dan Erenberg, the son of the owner, who said that this machine is for sale at a price of $800. According to Dan, as good as nothing is known about the origin of this device. It might have been made before 1920, which is very rare. Machine-based encryption became popular only after 1925 with designs like the Enigma.

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How it works

Richard sent me the following description of the machine:

  • Only the center wheel, with the handle, rotates. It is not connected to anything else, that is. It does not advance the paper, or advance the cipher.
  • The moving wheel has cast type on the bottom of it. One letter for each wheel letter, and the type letter is the SAME as the marked letter. Therefore, whatever letter is shown, at the top, is the letter that will be printed.
  • When the button is depressed, a small leather pad pushes the paper of the strip into the type letter.
  • Between the paper and the type letter is a small strip of “carbon paper”. This does not advance, and would quickly be used up to type a letter or two, and need to be replaced. The carbon paper piece is held under a spring loaded clip, for easy replacement.
  • The paper strip is moved manually, with a crank. A ratchet measures and stops the movement, one character distance at a time (to properly space the characters on the strip).
  • The outer letter/number wheel is fixed, it does not rotate.

It is clear that this is a very simple machine. It does not advance the cipher characters, so any enciphering/deciphering must be done with keys or tables or whatever, and manually input into the machine by setting some chosen character or characters on the inner wheel, to the outer wheel. The operator would therefore have to reset the wheel for each plaintext character.

Also, the need to replace the carbon paper after each few characters implies that this was not intended for real service as a cipher machine, but for demonstrating one – either to test or demonstrate the concept, for future production, as a prototype; or as a patent model, to show the cipher mechanism, but not needing to create other aspects such as advancing a strip of carbon paper, or advancing the paper strip. These would be desired on a working unit, but unessessary on a patent model if they were not part of the patent.

The lettering of the outer wheel is quite unusual.

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How it is constructed

According to Richard, the machine is constrccuted as follows:

  • The wooden parts of the machine have pencil measurement marks on them, showing they were not cut in a jig, but measured and cut.
  • The numbers and letters on the cipher wheels are stamped, not engraved or cut. This can be seen because of the raised metal around the edges of the characters.
  • The characters are not very accurately placed, implying this is a one off machine. Any production machine would probably be engraved, and marked in a jig, for accuracy.
  • The letter types under the cipher wheel seem to be lead, and possibly cut from typewriter arms. They are screwed to the moving cipher disk, and the top of the holes used can be seen ont coming through the top of that disk. The length of the attaching screws varies (depth in the holes), further implying the one off, hand built, nature of this.
  • The copper and aluminum supports are rudely cut and bent, with little attempt to clean or polish out the tool marks.
  • There are no numbers, letters, or maker’s marks anywhere on the machine that I could see.

From the contruction, this looks like a one off. According to Richard, some of the parts do not look as old as the design implies. He is not so certain this is from the 1920’s or before, but rather may be someone’s attempt at building a replica of an old machine. He also notes that the base was cut on a table saw, with a rotating blade… and this blade was either dull, or the wood was pushed through too rapidly. This implies a somewhat amateur ability here… and patent models usually show a high degree of model making skill. Ditto on the poor alignment of the stamped letters, the bending marks on the copper supports, and the somewhat crude cutting and filing of some parts.

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Kommentare (24)

  1. #1 Gerd
    30. Oktober 2017

    Are you sure this is an encryption machine? I feel it is similar to an antique typewriter. As it is not obvious how the encrytption is done, maybe this was just built for printing a text?

    Gerd

  2. #2 Klaus Schmeh
    30. Oktober 2017

    @Gerd: Good point. Maybe it’s not an encryption machine at all.

  3. #3 Bill Briere
    Wyoming, USA
    30. Oktober 2017

    I agree with Gerd. Earlier today, I sent my thoughts (and a link to your post) to an online crypto-collector group, as follows:

    “Klaus Schmeh is looking for help identifying a possible encryption item. It appears to be a home-machined model of a simple device crudely used for text-to-tape printing/typing. It’s not clear if the device is designed to generate ciphertext itself, or if it’s only meant to print plaintext (which, of course, could include ciphertext generated separately).”

    “I can see how one might force it to produce weak polyalphabetic ciphers, but that doesn’t strike me as very convincing. Can anyone explain what the letters and numbers of the outer ring might be used for, other than cryptography?”

    “To me, it looks like an early prototype of the handheld ‘gun’ that led to that weird label-making fad of the 1970’s. Remember those things? You would turn the dial and squeeze the trigger (really hard) to manually press each letter into a piece of plastic tape to create raised-letter labels to put on all your stuff.”

  4. #4 Rich SantaColoma
    http://proto57.wordpress.com/
    30. Oktober 2017

    I disagree with the typewriter theory… the outer wheel, with “left” and “right” one through ten numbers, and the left and right “A/B/C” lettering, would serve no purpose I can see on a typewriter not meant to encipher/decipher.

    Maybe the system used is not strong, that is true… but we don’t know what system was applied to the plain text, before it would input into this machine.

    I’ll bet that arraignment of numbers/letters will strike someone as familiar, though… it seems it must relate to some known cipher, or be similar enough to one, to “ring a bell”.

  5. #5 Rich SantaColoma
    http://proto57.wordpress.com/
    30. Oktober 2017

    Klaus… I almost can’t believe this, but now I see, in one of the photos, some stamped lettering on the wood! It didn’t show to me when I took the picture… and I didn’t notice it after.

    I will examine the original photo, if you or your readers cannot make it out… and if I cannot read it, I’ll visit Dan tomorrow and bring a magnifying glass.

  6. #6 Rich SantaColoma
    http://proto57.wordpress.com/
    30. Oktober 2017

    I read,

    MADE BY
    C.C. S_A___
    CONNECTICUT

  7. #7 Bill Briere
    Wyoming, USA
    31. Oktober 2017

    Rich, good points! Yes, the outer ring (not really a wheel or dial, since it doesn’t turn) is a big weakness in the typewriter/label-maker theory.

    I also noticed the writing, but thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Now it’s very clearly there. “MADE BY” is indisputable. The second line looks kind of like “C.C. MARKING.” I feel somewhat okay with the C.C. and the -ING, but the middle letters aren’t much more than guesses. I’m sure your next in-person visit with the device will clear up the wording.

  8. #8 Thomas Ernst
    Latrobe
    31. Oktober 2017

    Looks to me like a morse telegraph, especially regarding the numbers and the paperstrips. Perhaps the prototype of a morse encoder. In that case, it would have worked somewhat (soemwhat!) like the Alberti cipher wheel: using the handle to change settings, an A, for example, would have no longer been “short – long”, but perhaps “long – short – short”. Enciphered morse code – there is a new one!

  9. #9 Dan Durham
    31. Oktober 2017

    It is possible that this device was intended for use by a telegrapher to produce a type-written message instead of a hand-written message. As each character of the morse code was received, the telegrapher would turn the inner wheel and stamp the character. Or, perhaps, it was intended to produce a type-written record copy for, say, a bank or attorney after a hand-written message had been received. Its use would depend on the speed and ability of the operator. Call it an early version of a typewriter.

  10. #10 Thomas
    31. Oktober 2017

    Maybe a paper tape perforater for telegraphic purpose? The alphanumeric wheel is similar to Ronalds´ telegraph disk, expanded to 26 letters:
    https://archive.org/stream/descriptionsane00ronagoog#page/n24/mode/2up

  11. #11 Greg
    ROT-13
    31. Oktober 2017

    It fairly obviously enciphers and deciphers a Caesar-type cipher (up to and including ROT-13). There are 13 positions on the left and right sides (1-10+ ABC). To encipher you set the inner wheel so that the plaintext letter aligns not at the top but with the number representing the shift. To decipher turn the inner wheel in the opposite direction by the same amount and enter the ciphertext. I agree that it is more of a toy or demonstrator (perhaps some ‘steampunk’ prop)

    Morse code telegraphy worked at much higher wpm than would be possible with this and used its own codes. Typewriters existed since the 19th century and also would have been much more efficient.

  12. #12 Greg
    paper advance
    31. Oktober 2017

    At the back there is a ratchet mechanism which looks like it should advance the paper when the button is pushed, if it doesn’t there is probably a part missing or broken.

  13. #13 Rich SantaColoma
    http://proto57.wordpress.com/
    31. Oktober 2017

    I went back to see the machine, and Dan kindly took it out of the case for me again. The maker mark is:

    MADE BY
    C.C. STIRLING
    HARTFORD

    I also did a patent search for Mr. Stirling, and he does hold several patents… from between about 1888 (although he may have just been an adviser on that one), through 1921. So clearly I was very wrong about this being newer… this dates from the turn of the century, to about 1920, probably.

    Another search turned up an ad which Stirling ran in a 1903/04 Connecticut newspaper.

    In it he lists many services, but among them is “Inventions Made and Developed”. So my guess is that the cipher machine is a model he built for some other inventor, or (since it does not show under his name in patents), which he built, but never patented.

    Anyway, getting closer. Maybe this will help someone turn up the answer to this.

  14. #14 Klaus Schmeh
    31. Oktober 2017

    @Rich: Thank you very much for taking another look at the machine. Your findings indicate that the machine was made before 1920, which makes it especially valuable.

  15. #15 Fred Brandes
    United States
    1. November 2017

    C. C. Stirling is Clarence C. Stirling living in Hartford Connecticut.

    https://www.google.com/patents/US1267603

    Other hits include a letter from the American Bicycle Co. to Stirling dated Aug 5, 1901 in the Connecticut Historical Society archives. Apparently Stirling was a bicyclist and the letter was for a credit ofr a repair.

    https://archive.org/stream/annualreportofco18conn/annualreportofco18conn_djvu.txt

    https://chs.org/2012/05/bicycling-in-hartford/

    Google of “Clarence Stirling” produced a reference to a Clarence Stirling of Bridgeport, Connecticut in an 1897 issue of English Mechanic and World of Science…

    https://books.google.com/books?id=O0c_AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA105&lpg=PA105&dq=%22clarence+stirling%22&source=bl&ots=X1Wsryar3g&sig=FPg-VgOyCjx5FXzI8K4BbRRzxEo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjWnuqGpZzXAhUD5yYKHaRMDvQQ6AEIRzAJ#v=onepage&q=%22clarence%20stirling%22&f=false

    It appears that C. C. Stirling was into inventing switches and rheostats, bicycling and optics. I doubt if the object in question had anything to do with those interests.

  16. #16 George Keller
    1. November 2017

    Curious why the numbers run in both directions from a point (12 O’clock) and some letters do the same on the bottom of the “Dial”. Is this a clue? Could you just put a piece of carbon paper under it and run a full set of letters and see what happens?

    73,

    P.S. I attended Peekskill Military Academy for a couple years until the Commandant kicked me out and told my parents I would never be suitable for military service. I retired as a senior Navy Officer. (Cryppie)

    George

    73,

    George

  17. #17 George Keller
    1. November 2017

    I also notice there are 26 numbers and letters around the brass plate, could it be for center justifying some sort of labels?
    GK

  18. #18 Thomas
    1. November 2017

    Since he was born in 1867 (U.S. cenus), the terminus post quem should be around 1885.This device might have been a pastime, because he stated his profession as “electrician” and he only got patents for electric stuff (mainly electric switches, afaics the first one in 1888).

  19. #19 Gerd
    1. November 2017

    Was just thinking about the possible meaning of the 1-9,A,B,C markings on the outer ring. Maybe this could be used for encryption the following way:
    Enter a text by setting the cleartext letters next to, say, the ‘4’ on the right side and print it. If you then enter the encrypted text with its letters next to the ‘4’ on the left side, it will print the cleartext.
    So the right half of the outer ring could be used for encryption, the left half for decryption. However there are only 13 different Caesar shifts which is quite primitive.
    Also after Rich’s findings, I feel that for a typewriter, I would expect a typewriter company behind it, not a kind of one-piece-production workshop as CC sterling seemed to be.

    Gerd

  20. #20 Rich SantaColoma
    http://proto57.wordpress.com/
    1. November 2017

    Hi George:

    “Curious why the numbers run in both directions from a point (12 O’clock) and some letters do the same on the bottom of the “Dial”. Is this a clue? Could you just put a piece of carbon paper under it and run a full set of letters and see what happens?”

    If you mean to see what those outer numbers would print, they do not have any “typeface” under them… they are reference only, for the position of the inner, moving, rotor.

    It is only that inner rotor which has typeface characters under them, and each one seems to have the exact letter shown above it. So all encoding and decoding is done with the relationship between the two.

    Testing it is still a good idea, but one could do it at home, but cutting two paper wheels, making a pivot, and get the same results as the machine would give.

    Could test Gerd’s, and other’s, ideas that way… I’m not knowledgeable enough about cipher systems to sort out what might be the system, from such a paper model, but maybe someone here is?

  21. #21 Thomas
    1. November 2017

    @Rich
    So the device doesn’t punch the paper tape but prints letters on it?

  22. #22 Rich SantaColoma
    http://proto57.wordpress.com/
    1. November 2017

    Yes, Thomas: I think Stirling used the “type heads” from a regular typewriter, and cut and fitted them to the underside of the movable rotor. He used the capital section of each letter… probably filing or grinding the lower case letter off.

    A very clever way to get type for printing. But he may have simply gotten type faces used for printing… at the time it would have been an easy matter to do that, without ruining a typewriter. In fact I have a tray of old type in my attic, and could make one of these, myself.

    But yes, they do not perforate the paper. A little leather pad pushes the paper strip up, and sandwiches the carbon paper strip in between the pad and the type, to imprint one letter at a time.

  23. #23 Thomas
    1. November 2017

    What might have been the sense of printing letters on paper tape? I think this was a toy. As to the letter disk, Francis Ronalds’ telegraph dial could have inspired him.

  24. #24 Thorsten
    1. November 2017

    Something that makes me wonder is this inner ring of holes in the center disc. I mean, it does not seem to have any purpose. You might think it is just an aesthetic feature, but the whole machine was build without aesthetics in mind but to demonstrate something. As Richard mentioned:

    The copper and aluminum supports are rudely cut and bent, with little attempt to clean or polish out the tool marks.

    So why would someone, who does not care about leaving the tool marks in place, took the time to drill 26 holes into the copper plate that have no purpose at all? So my guess is, that something important is missing here. You could either stick something in it oder you could see something through it.

    Perhaps you could put a paper disc beneath it with another alphabet on it, that you could read through these holes. That way you have an exchangable monoalphabetical substitution cipher. Perhaps the outer ring was used to decode which disc to use. But this is just guessing.