Tuesday, September 24, 2013

National Cryptologic Museum

(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!


Donna W. said...

you know what they say you learn something new every day...well I learned something new... never knew there was such a museum

Paul and Marti Dahl said...

I'm quite surprised they didn't give any credit to the Brits and their Bletchley Park code breaking program.

They were the first to crack the Enigma codes and had hundreds of mathematicians, musicians and cross word puzzle aficionados that were doing the lion's share of the code breaking.

Later in the war, the Enigma machine went to four wheels and threw the code breakers into a tizzy for a few weeks until they worked out the new code structures.

The U.S. did help, but had nothing like the British did.

Tom and Marci said...

That looks very cool . . . we'll have to remember this place for our future travels!

Tumbleweed Jim said...

Paul, I think the way they worded it was "the allies" broke the code. Definitely not much mention of the Brits though. This was a very "NSA-centric" museum, with all the credit to U.S. efforts. Thanks for letting me clarify this. Jim

Cindi said...

Hi there - I do social media work for the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation and would first like to say we are most grateful for your blog post about the museum. Also - in response to one of the comments to your post - I wanted to mention that the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation has an Acquisitions Committee and the Vice Chairman of that committee (David Hamer) is also the Bletchley Park liaison. The Foundation and Museum definitely recognize Bletchley and maintain a close relationship. Also, in the upcoming Center for Cryptologic History Symposium (CCH) which is co-hosted by the NCMF - there are several presentations regarding Bletchley - including a special presentation about Alan Turing. You might be interested in checking out the info. Here is the link to the page where you can see the info about the liaison. http://www.cryptologicfoundation.org/content/About-the-NCMF/governance.shtml Thank you again! ~ Cindi

Tumbleweed Jim said...

Thanks Cindi. One of the disadvantages of blogging about the wonderful sights we experience is that we have to compromise between detail and brevity. We appreciate your comment. Jim

Bob and Jo said...

Have to add this to our list.

museum in USA said...

National Cryptologic Museum be one of strange museum in USA