Crypto collector Ralph Simpson owns a small cipher device that consists of two metal disks. The origin and the purpose of this unusual tool are unknown. Suggestions from readers are welcome.

Earlier this week I had the chance to visit crypto items collector Ralph Simpson, who lives in San Jose, California. I know Ralph from several crypto history events we attended, and I was glad that I finally had the chance to accept his invitation to look at his collection.

Source: Simpson/Schmeh

Ralph is a retired IBM and Cisco employee, as can be read in his curriculum vitae. He hosts a great website about crypto history. His crypto collection includes two Enigmas, several Hagelin machines, a few one-time-pad machines, and several rotor machines, as well as burst encoders, cipher disks, codebooks and more. All items are displayed in showcases and explained on labels. The upper floor of his house would easily pass for a crypto museum.


A device from 1942

Like virtually every crypto collector I know, Ralph owns a few items about which he knows as good as nothing. Cryptography is a secretive business, so cipher equipment was usually not listed in sales catalogs and rarely described in publicly available literature. The people using it were not allowed to talk about about their work. Many crypto devices were not even properly labeled – for the case that they fell into the hands of the enemy.

One of the most mysterious cipher devices in Ralph’s collection is a small tool consisting of to metal disks.

Source: Simpson/Schmeh

As can be seen, the disk on the right-hand side is dated 1942. Both disks bear inscriptions: “I MISS HER SMILE” and “TO THOSE WHO WAIT”. Ralph and I have no idea what these two sentences mean. The might have been used as a part of the encryption key.

On the reverse side …

Source: Simpson/Schmeh

… of the left disk we see the letter H in a circle. This might be the logo of the producer. A similar sign was used by the still-existing company Husky, as can be seen on the following item Ralph found on e-Bay (note that this item is not a part of the cipher device in question):

Source: Simpson/Schmeh


What was it used for?

Here’s a picture of the complete cipher device (a screw holds the two disks together):

Source: Simpson/Schmeh

The edges of the disks bear inscriptions, too. The top disk only shows numbers:


I can’t see any meaning in these digits. To me they look like a sequence of random numbers. The edge of the lower disk contains the following letters:


This can be interpreted as an incomplete alphabet with the letters O and N being switched. Note that there are more letters than numbers, which makes it hard to use the device as a substitution table. In addition, some of the digits appear several times, which easily leads to ambiguities – something that is usually not desired in an encryption process.

To Ralph and me it is completely unclear what this device was used for. It looks like a simple cipher tool, similar to a cipher disk, but it could also be something completely different. Among other things we ask ourselves, why this device is made of metal – cardboard, which is cheaper and less heavy, would have done the same job.

If a reader can say more about this device, Ralph and I would be very interested.

Further reading: Who knows this cipher (?) machine?


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Kommentare (11)

  1. #1 Seth K
    26. Februar 2020

    Is there evidence it was used as a crypto device? Any context could be helpful.

    I ask because it doesn’t look like the metal disks were made with any precision, nor does it seem it was lettered and numbered with precision. It looks like more like an art project made of “found objects” or something made out of scrap metal.

    My other wild guess, depending on the size of the bolt hole, is they sort of look like weights to hold down a record on a turntable.

  2. #2 Rich SantaColoma
    26. Februar 2020

    If it is a set of cipher wheels, perhaps the sayings are meant to identify the wheels to be used by a recipient of a cipher. My guess is based on the innocuous nature of the sayings, which anyone could use in a letter, without suspicion. So say someone had a choice of many such disks. If they received this letter,

    “Fred: Hope all is well. How is mother? I miss her smile, and the great peach cobbler she makes. But good things come to those who wait, or so they say.

    Give her a hug for me. John”

    Now the recipient would know to use those two disks, for any included… or otherwise transmitted.. cipher text.

    Is all that too imaginative, based on so little? Probably. But typing is easy, and free!

  3. #3 Bill Briere
    Wyoming, USA
    27. Februar 2020

    We might be trying too hard to make these things into cipher devices. But it certainly can be done.

    We could produce an alphabet-friendly 26 characters by breaking the 18 numbers into 9 unique pairs and mixing them into the 17 unique letters by some agreed-upon pattern.

    Of course, the screw implies that the disks are meant to be attached for use. But let’s say we toss the screw and do this on paper, for purposes of the following example.

    Create a simple substitution cipher by pairing a plaintext A-Z alphabet with a ciphertext alphabet of, say, 03 A B 45 C D 79 E F 10 G H 46 L M 30 O N 24 P Q 08 R Y 18 Z. The word ZEPHYR would be enciphered as ZC30E18N.

    This cipher might be secure enough, as is, for your kid’s Tree Fort Pirate Club. But grownups would want to enhance the output with an additive or something.

    But, getting back to the device as illustrated (that is, with the screw in place), the feng shui feels totally off for practical encryption and decryption. Instead, if this is indeed a cryptographic item, it seems more likely that it would be used as part of a process to generate keys, à la the VIC cipher (especially if a variety of disks are at the communicators’ disposal, as Rich suggested).

  4. #4 Claudio
    27. Februar 2020

    Hello, seeing only the first photos, they reminded me of the CDs (Cd-Rom). But apparently these two are much smaller in size….

  5. #5 George Keller
    Port Jervis
    27. Februar 2020

    What appears to be the inner side of the disks there seems to be a vague outline of a circle. This may have been a bearing of some sort which also tells me that there were only two disks involved. There may also have been a spacer of some kind between them. My guess is it may have been sort of tool. What is the actual size of the holes and what is the thickness of the material? Standard stuff? If it is in Frank’s collection it must be super-special.

  6. #6 Gerd
    27. Februar 2020

    Maybe this is not cipher device at all?
    The inscription “to those who wait” and “I miss her smile” sound like typical for wartime, and “1942” also. The rude surface finish and inscription might have been made with a toolset for soldiers’ dog tags. But what is it then?

  7. #7 Ralph Simpson
    San Jose
    28. Februar 2020

    Thanks, Klaus, for posting my mystery cipher wheel! Also, thanks to all who have given their thoughts, that is appreciated. You can see some pictures of the bolt and washer here:

    There is a mistake in the numbers listed above. The last 3 numbers are not “…818” but is really “…&18”. Also, the first “0” is turned 90 degrees, the other “0”s are upright.

    The weight of this device is 4.98 oz. or 141.2 grams, which is quite heavy for such a small device. A magnet is not attracted to it, so it is probably made of bronze. The disks are exactly 2 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick. The hole is 1/4 inch. The washer is made of leather. As others have noted, the disk surfaces and the letters and numbers around the circumference are crudely made and do not line up perfectly. The bolt mechanism, however, seems to be very well made.
    Since the alphabet is not complete but all the numbers are available, maybe this was used to encipher code?

    Has anyone heard of the circle H logo being used on anything else? The Husky logo was just a guess on my part, since the logo looked similar.

  8. #8 George Keller
    Port Jervis
    28. Februar 2020

    OOOPS!! Meant “Ralph” not “Frank”, Frank Sampson was “Cryppie” stationed with in Bremerhaven about 55 years ago and name stuck in brain. Sorry Ralph.

  9. #9 Ralph Simpson
    San Jose
    29. Februar 2020

    Hi George,
    No problem, Frank would be one of the better names I have been called.

  10. #10 Klaus Schmeh
    2. März 2020

    Wayne Farmer via Facebook:
    My guess is that the assembly was manufactured blank except for the H logo, and came with a set of alphanumeric stamping dies. It might have been part of a kit sold to Allied soldiers, officers, or resistance fighters who needed to encode or decode encrypted messages during World War II. The messages would have been a mix of plaintext and encoded text, with the plaintext containing the phrases punched on the disc faces, thereby specifying which discs should be used to decode the message. The sender of the messages would have punched the key into the disc rims and distributed them to those who needed to receive the messages.

    The phrases might have been part of these messages:

  11. #11 Ralph Simpson
    San Jose, CA, USA
    13. März 2020

    Thanks Klaus and Wayne. The idea that these disks were distributed as kits makes sense. That would explain the crude punching of the letters/numbers and the reason for the odd phrases on the sides. Thank you both for this very interesting insight!