(Ft. Meade, MD) Hi 72 Lo 41 – Today we stayed close to home and checked out a museum that is really under the radar as far tourist destinations go. Here on Ft. Meade, about three miles from our RV park, is the giant NSA (National Security Agency) complex.
The NSA has been in the news lately, as you may know, and not entirely for good reasons. It’s probably the most secret data gathering organization in the world. The NSA complex is on Ft. Meade, but they have their own security gates to keep us regular folks out. The National Cryptologic Museum is tucked in a corner of Ft. Meade next to the main NSA building, but is accessible by civilians without having to enter the base. We actually had to exit the base to get to the museum.
The museum is in a building that used to be a restaurant. It tells the story of cryptology (code breaking) and how it developed through history starting with the Revolutionary War up through the 1990’s. It’s a small museum, but there are hundreds of items, from code machines, to personal effects and letters of famous spies through the ages.
The most famous code machine in history was the Enigma machine the Nazis used in WW II. It’s quite a treat for spy buffs to see one Enigma machine, but here there were about a dozen of them on display. Here are just a few.
One was out in the open to actually try out.
The Enigma worked by setting three rotating wheels to a certain number pattern, which adjusted internal wheels so the actual key pushed resulted in a different letter that was transmitted. On the receiving end, with the three wheels set to the same number pattern, when you typed in the letters of the coded message, the correct letters would light up. This is how it looked when I pushed the key for the letter “A”.
You can see the letter “J” is lit up on the upper keyboard panel. One of the biggest factors in our victory over Germany in WW II was our ability to crack the Enigma code. A team of Navy WAVES (women sailors) worked in a secret location around the clock decoding German communications.
One room that was really fascinating to us was the computer technology room.
They had some very interesting examples of early Cray super computers.
It’s amazing that a modern laptop has many times the computing power of the first super computers in the 1970’s.
One small exhibit that caught my attention was a display of some rare books from the museum’s library. This book, in Latin text, was printed in 1526. It’s the oldest volume in the museum’s collection and the second ever book published about cryptology. Looking at it closely, it’s in incredibly good condition for a 500-year old book. (Click on the photo for a closer look.)
We spent a fast two hours looking at all the interesting things. Of course they had a gift shop. I find it ironic that the most secret organization in the world sells t-shirts and coffee mugs with the NSA logo on them. If you’re ever in the Laurel, MD area we highly recommend you check out the National Cryptologic Museum. It’s in the shadow of the most secret spy organization in the world. And the best part is, the admission is free!