Enigma Machine donation promotes focus on history of computers

Though perhaps not as well attended as the Wale concert or the Holi celebration, “From Enigma to AI: The Legacy of Pamela McCorduck and Joseph Traub at CMU,” was similarly an event this Carnival weekend that was flocked to by the public.

The panel discussing the donations of Pamela McCorduck to the University Libraries Special Collection and the legacy of former School of Computer Science head Joseph Traub may have deviated from the theme of myths and legends, but accomplished the mission of other Carnival events as it brought people from all parts of the university together to discuss historical computing.

McCorduck, an author who writes about artificial intelligence and women in technology, was married to the former head of the computer science department, the late Traub. Her contributions from the McCorduck-Traub collection to the library include many historical computation devices, from the first mechanical calculator that was commercially produced to rare books by Charles Babbage, the inventor of the analytical engine considered to be the first mechanical computing device.

A highlight of this donation, spotlighted by the title of the panel, was two Enigma machines. Enigma machines were used by Germany during World War II to encrypt wartime communication and were the focus of many decryption efforts by the British during the war.

“For one of the best schools of computer science in the world, a collection of ancestral machines seems a good marker of where the field has come from,” McCorduck said of her donation in a university press release.

The panel consisted of McCorduck, Andrew Moore, the Dean of the School of Computer Science, Julia Parsons, a Carnegie Institute of Technology graduate who worked as a codebreaker during World War II, Mary Shaw, a School of Computer Science professor, and Keith Webster, the Dean of the University Libraries. Parsons, when working as part of an all-women codebreaking team, was present when the transmission that led to the decryption of the German code was intercepted, and her contributions were honored during the panel.

Moore highlighted the importance of the history of computing to the current study of the discipline, stating in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review that he encourages all first-year computer science students to view the collection in order to show them that they can not just work at a big tech company but make something with a real impact on the world, adding that when one looks at the legacy of the machine, “We see people who took technology to save lives and save the world.” The Enigma machine, like much of the work coming out of the Software Engineering Institute today at Carnegie Mellon, had a military application.

The hope of the expansion of this collection is to expand the academic exploration of the computers of the 19th and the 20th century at Carnegie Mellon. It was announced at the panel by Webster that the libraries will be hiring a researcher to further examine their collection.

The Enigma machines that Carnegie Mellon have are some of the only ones of the 350 surviving devices that are on display to the public. The collection is located in the Rare and Fine Book room in Hunt Library, which will be open weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. through the beginning of May.