A Look Inside the NSA's Code-Breaking Museum

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FORT MEADE, Maryland -- The National Cryptologic Museum is, like its parent organization the National Security Agency, a well-kept secret. Owned and operated by the NSA, the museum is filled with declassified state secrets and staffed predominantly by former employees of the NSA who are veritable encyclopedias of cryptology.

While lacking the grandeur of the high-ceilinged Smithsonian only a few miles away, the museum hosts some of the most impressive technological artifacts of the 20th century. From the Jefferson leather disk ciphers to Enigma machines to Cray supercomputers, the museum captures how central cryptology has been to the history of computing, politics and warfare.

The collections are housed in what was once a motel tucked behind the looming headquarters of the NSA in Fort Meade, MD. Rumor has it that the motel was purchased because the then-head of the NSA realized he could see into his office from the parking lot. When asked about this, curator Patrick Wheadon responded that he hasn't "seen any evidence" but that "when an organization that is close to the NSA campus is about to be sold the agency would be interested in obtaining it for the obvious reasons."

The highlight of the museum is the functional Enigma: an electro-mechanical rotor machine used for the encryption and decryption of messages by the Germans in World War II. The simple and nondescript machine is capable of producing 10^114 possible configurations, a feat the Germans wrongly believed would overwhelm any brute force attack needed to break the code. The museum's machine, unlike those on display elsewhere, can be used by visitors interested in encrypting and decrypting their own messages. The Allied efforts in breaking the code pulled in Alan Turing among other British cryptologists, as well as the code breaking Bombe machines produced by Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).

Not everything is stuck in World War II. The museum contains pieces from most major wars of the 19th and 20th centuries including the Civil War, World War I, the Korean War, Vietnam and the Cold War.

The displays humanize and, at times, justify the shadowy agency that may or may not be listening to your phone calls. Unlike the NSA of the '50s and '60s, which went by the name No Such Agency and would, upon questioning, claim to not exist, the National Cryptologic Museum paints a portrait of an agency that wishes it could break its self-imposed obscurity.

When asked to define the primary function of the museum, curator Patrick Weadon responded that it was to "help people understand the critical role the making and breaking of codes has played throughout history" and "extrapolate from that how important the present day mission is."

And extrapolate you must because the museum's collection mysteriously ends around the 1990s, and is curated in a way that manages to avoid any lingering controversy or unseemliness.

Don't let that stop you from visiting as this museum is a must-see for any cryptologic fans or tech nerds. There is no entrance fee and it's open Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. A parting word of advice: don't rely on GPS to guide you there. Mine got seriously confused when approaching Fort Meade, which I hope is a security feature and not just a mundane coincidence.

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Oliver Hulland is the editor of Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools, a review site for tools that really work. He currently lives in Baltimore where he eats inordinate amounts of blue crab while writing about science and technology.

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