Keeping the Secret: The Waves & NCR
Joseph Desch & The Bombe

Joseph Desch & The Bombe


            It began in 1918 when an eleven year old boy by the name of Joseph Desch first saw a crystal radio set in a store.  He later recalled that “right then and there I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

            Joseph’s daughter, Deborah Anderson, says her father passed his first amateur radio license exam in 1926 and spoke fondly of evenings when he would repair radios for fellow students at the University of Dayton.

            “Not only had he gained the skill necessary for building and repairing radios, but long before his graduation in 1929 with a degree in Electrical Engineering, he had begun experimenting at home, using various gasses and metal filaments in vacuum tubes blown in his basement laboratory.” says Debbie.

            After working for General Motors Radio and Frigidaire, Joseph was hired in 1938 to work for the National Cash Register Company in Dayton to begin the Electrical Research Laboratory.

            “The move to NCR changed my father’s life, allowing him to capitalize on his love of electronics and research.”

            He began to experiment on ways to develop an electronic counter.  A contract was signed with M.I.T. Labs to develop a ‘Rapid Arithmetical Selector’.

            “In addition, in the summer of 1940 the National Defense Research Committee had requested that the NCR Laboratory develop electronic defense equipment.” says Debbie.  “The objective was a counter, operable at one million counts per second  In short , he and Bob Mumma, who had joined him at NCR, were quickly establishing the Electrical Research Laboratory as a pioneer in electrical computation.”

            In 1941 their research drew the attention of the Navy in its search for a company to accept Defense contracts.

            “Their initial contract grew into the Naval Computing Machine Laboratory, which opened at NCR on March 9, 1942.  The facility, under the command of Captain Ralph Meader, with Joseph Desch as Research Director, was housed in Building 26 on Stewart Street.”

            Pressure was put on Joseph and his engineers to develop a code breaking machine. The German military was using a machine, called the ENIGMA, to encode secret messages.  British cryptanalysts, using a machine called a ‘Bombe’ had been successful in decoding these messages at the beginning of WWII.  However in February of 1942 a fourth rotor was added to the Naval Enigma, thereby rendering the British bombe almost useless.

            The reading of these coded messages was very important to the war effort.  By 1942 German Submarine U-boats sank more that 1,660 ships in the Atlantic.  It was estimated that one in five Allied seamen's death were caused by U-boats.  Fortunately, the U-boats would communicate with a base on shore to plan their attacks.  Desch worked with British scientists to develop the  first US code-breaking computer.  Six times faster than its British counterpart, it enabled the Navy to decode the radio communications sent and received by the U-boats.  This information was useful in helping the Allies both avoid and destroy U-boats.  

            Plans were made and in April 1943, the Waves began arriving in Dayton to help build the bombes as quickly as possible.

Return to "Keeping the Secret" Home Page