By Catherine Revland
Part 4 of “You Must Remember This,” a series commemorating the history of the
West Village during World War II
Some conspiracy theories die hard, especially the ones about catastrophic events that change the course of history. For example, take the rumor that President Roosevelt had advance knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor but did nothing because he wanted to take the country into war. This insult can still be heard 75 years after his death, even though it has been debunked by many knowledgeable sources, including the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA). Declassified war documents, released in 2013, confirm that it was not FDR who caused the nearly total destruction of the Pacific Fleet; it was an urgent message sent by shortwave radio to the fleet commander that arrived a day too late.
Like many commanders, General George C. Marshall didn’t trust speech transmissions because enemy codebreakers could overhear them in real time. Instead, he sent a written message by radiotelegraph—each letter painstakingly encoded by hand. The tragic lesson of Pearl Harbor was that without the right communications technology, hundreds of ships and planes and thousands of troops could be mowed down before breakfast on a Sunday morning.
In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government contracted with Bell Labs to develop a thousand military projects, including its top priority—an impenetrable speech-scrambling system that provided both speed and accuracy—a system that didn’t exist. Bell then doubled the size of its research staff to 9,000. The largest collection of scientists and engineers in the country now crammed the halls and elevators of West Street, working six days a week and sometimes 12 hours a day to meet the needs of the war effort.
Thirty specialists in sound transmission were assigned to work on SIGSALY, the Army Signal Corps’ cover name for the new system. At Bell Labs it was called Project X. Housed in Room L-30, originally the sound movie lab, it was a sight to behold—55 tons of electronic equipment that filled every square inch of the very large room—but it was hardly true that speech-scrambling technology didn’t exist. It did. Sound waves had always been Bell technicians’ bread and butter, and by the time the project was launched in September, 1942 they had already done much of the groundwork. As for the government’s demand for speed, that could only happen with electronic components. Once again Bell was decades ahead. Nevertheless, Project X was daunting. According to NSA historians, “It required a degree of precision and refinement that scarcely seemed possible when undertaken, extremely difficult to implement in the technology of the ‘40s, and they were pushed to the limit.”
Turing Comes to America
The story of Alan Turing’s trip to the U.S. has been “weeded” from British military archives and other primary sources of information are few: a brief mention in NSA archives, a snippet in Bell’s corporate history, and some carefully parsed recollections from Claude Shannon, a math wunderkind who was new to West Street when Turing arrived. “At the time I didn’t know he was as important as he was. I knew he spent a lot of time with a group working on speech-scrambling, but we didn’t know it was to protect the secrecy of conversations between FDR and Churchill. Hitler got these messages.”
Turing’s mission was twofold: to determine whether Project X was indeed unbreakable, and to immerse himself in electronics. He did both with flying colors. On his first visit to Room L-30 he successfully “boiled down” an equation in an hour that had bedeviled the X team for a week. American electronic technology might have been decades ahead, but Turing picked it up in two months.
By March, 1943, the group had resolved every problem. Churchill and FDR conducted their first overseas call in July, and by September, engineers had installed terminals in 12 locations around the world. “Everything functioned flawlessly,” said a jubilant Paul Bly, head transmission engineer, “so secret, we were convinced that we could have dropped a terminal in Berlin and without the records no one could figure it out.”
According to NSA historians, “Bell had not merely improved, but invented the fundamentals of digitally encrypted voice and the means to transmit it.” The inventor of that technology was Claude Shannon, at a time when the term “digital” was virtually unknown. In six months an army of giant brains, “professor types,” had turned the tide of the war. Churchill’s prediction that it was the “end of the beginning” proved to be wrong. It was the beginning of the end.