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Schoolboy codebreaker cracks Enigma code to win national competition

Published: 
21 May 2003

The University of Southampton National Cipher Challenge has been won by David Simner, a pupil at Nottingham High School. David was presented with the top prize of £1,800 and an IBM Thinkpad laptop computer for his school, by TV presenter and author Adam Hart Davis at a ceremony at Bletchley Park, home of the WW2 codebreakers and now a site for science education.

"I am very pleased to have won," said David, who had to solve a real Enigma code to win. "The final stage was certainly a challenge. It took a whole weekend to write a computer programme, test it, fix any errors, re-test and so on. Each stage required a unique computer programme to solve that type of cipher.

"I was very surprised because it took me nearly twenty minutes to submit my final answer and I would have expected somebody to have done it faster."

University of Southampton Mathematics lecturer Dr Graham Niblo, the competition's 'Cipher Master', commented: "So much has been heard recently about the difficulties of teaching mathematics. The enthusiasm of these young people and their teachers is a welcome reminder that with the right approach we can engage them in hard problems, and they can show us just how much they can achieve."

The aim of the competition, devised by Graham and colleagues in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, was to involve more young people in mathematics and to increase its national appeal. Participants were able to enhance their mathematical and problem-solving skills while learning about science and history, by logging on to the University of Southampton National Cipher Challenge website and joining in the race to work out the whereabouts of a 19th century revolutionary cipher machine.

The competition placed mathematics in a scientific and historical context and challenged young people to crack a sequence of codes relating to a fictitious correspondence between three great scientists of the 19th century, Charles Babbage, Countess Ada Lovelace and Charles Wheatstone, as they searched for the missing cipher machine. The sequence of encoded messages was encrypted with successively stronger ciphers.

Due to the response of this year's National Cipher Challenge competition, which attracted over 2,000 young people from around the country, the University of Southampton has decided to run another Challenge, which will start in October 2003.

Related Staff Member

Notes for editors

  1. Digital image available from Sarah Watts, email S.A.Watts@soton.ac.uk
  2. Suggested photo caption: 'David Simner, University of Southampton National Cipher Challenge Champion, examines the Abwher Enigma machine with Adam Hart Davis at the prizegiving at Bletchley Park.'
  3. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University, which celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 2002, has 20,000 students and over 4,500 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £235 million.

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