Dedicated to those who worked in Building 26, 1942-1946
Duty is action, taken after listening to one’s leaders and weighing risk and fear against the powerful draw of obligation to family, community, nation, and the unknown future. We, the progeny who live in that future, were among the intended beneficiaries of those frightful decisions made so long ago. As such, we are also the caretakers of the memory, and the reputation of those who performed their duty–as they understood it–under circumstances too difficult for us ever to fully comprehend.
James Webb, Born Fighting , 2004
Brief history of Dayton’s role in WW2 code breaking
In 1938, the President of the National Cash Register Company, Edward Deeds, made a decision that would ultimately affect the lives of thousands of people worldwide. The Cash, as the company was known, was a manufacturing company but Deeds decided to pursue some experimental concepts for using electronics in the hardware NCR manufactured. To do this, he hired a native Daytonian, electrical engineer Joseph R. Desch, to start an electronics laboratory.
By 1941 Desch had two trusted researchers, Louis DeRosa and Robert Mumma, and several technicians. These men, largely self-taught, were bright and curious. Together they pursued the use of vacuum and gaseous tubes in advanced electronics. Through Deeds’ ties to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Desch’s laboratory was soon fulfillling contracts for the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). These contracts became more complex as the Laboratory engaged in progressively serious and complicated war contracts. One contract for a high speed electronic counter was actually for the Manhattan Project, although Desch and his staff did not know at that time the real purpose of that project.
A memo found at the NCR Research Center at Dayton History shows that as early as June of 1942 the United States Navy was already contemplating the use of NCR’s Electrical Research Laboratory to design and manufacture the advanced machine needed for the ability to read the encrypted communications of the German Navy’s Enigma machine. When the Navy took over, the Lab was renamed the U.S. Naval Computing Machine Laboratory. In 1943 the circle of civilians in Desch’s lab had grown to 30, but the Navy had brought in hundreds of WAVES, and about a hundred seamen in addition to Naval Officers of Op-20-G. NCR had to hire about a thousand civilians to help manufacture not only the contract for the codebreaking machine, but remaining contracts for the Navy and the NDRC.
The codebreaking machine that Desch’s staff was assigned to design and build was called a Bombe. This machine was originally conceived by Polish mathematicians and called a bomba. When England received the concept and original designs for the machine, English code breakers renamed the machine a bombe, and this name stuck (although it is confusing for us, today).
All this sweat, tears and perseverance took place in a small building on the south edge of Dayton, Ohio.