The Scandalous History of the Last Rotor Cipher Machine

How this gadget figured in the shady Rubicon spy case

15 min read

The HX-63 cipher machine is an electromechanical, rotor-based system designed and built by Crypto AG.
The machine uses nine rotors [center right] to encrypt messages. A dual paper-tape printer is at the upper left.

PETER ADAMS

Growing up in New York City, I always wanted to be a spy. But when I graduated from college in January 1968, the Cold War and Vietnam War were raging, and spying seemed like a risky career choice. So I became an electrical engineer, working on real-time spectrum analyzers for a U.S. defense contractor.

In 1976, during a visit to the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw, I saw an Enigma, the famous German World War II cipher machine. I was fascinated. Some years later, I had the good fortune of visiting the huge headquarters of the cipher machine company Crypto AG (CAG), in Steinhausen, Switzerland, and befriending a high-level cryptographer there. My friend gave me an internal history of the company written by its founder, Boris Hagelin. It mentioned a 1963 cipher machine, the HX-63.

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