Hall Of The Silent Warriors

A Visit To The National Cryptologic Museum

Jason Bowling
Dec 12, 2019 · 6 min read

An hour southwest of Baltimore, MD, a collection of historical treasure is on display in a small, unassuming looking building. The National Cryptologic Museum is a major part of the National Security Agency’s public outreach, and the museum is located a short distance from NSA headquarters near Fort Meade. Given the NSA’s scope of work and influence, you might expect a rather lavish, modern looking facility, but that isn’t the case. It is quite modest and appears to be partially staffed by volunteers. It’s obvious that the dedication of the staff, rather than piles of money, is what keeps the place going. If you’re an enthusiast of the history of computers, military history, or especially interested in codes and codebreaking, this little building is worth your time to visit.

Closeup of SIGABA/ECM machine

To get there, you take the exit for the NSA, which, to my amusement, is clearly marked. There’s not much else at that exit, and the signs pointing the way to the museum look almost home made. I was greeted by an exceptionally friendly and helpful gentleman, who asked what my interests were, where I was from, and what I hoped to see. I asked a question about how I might use photographs I took there, and he immediately walked me back to the small business office, where the public relations staff member works. As we walked through, I was stunned to see another man, perhaps in his sixties, casually tearing down a 3 rotor Enigma machine on a card table, and remarking that he wasn’t sure why it suddenly wasn’t working.

I was not at that point aware that the museum maintains a pair of working Enigma machines that the public can touch, and operate. I had assumed that objects of such historic importance would be behind glass. Being able to actually press the keys and watch the encrypted letters light up as the rotors advanced, to feel the force required, was a unique experience I count myself lucky to have had.

The museum begins with a charming HO scale model railroad town, as part of a display about the encoded symbol language employed by “hobos” in the Depression. A reduced scale model of the Rosetta Stone is positioned near the entrance. It appeared to me that one of the museum’s rooms, the Magic room, is sometimes used by Army/government personnel for meetings. They also have STEM outreach programs for the surrounding area with some really neat activities.

Another detail shot of the SIGABA/ECM

A side room is dedicated to older supercomputers that have been retired by the agency and other modern electronic devices. A Cray XMP-24 and the Harvest robotic tape drive system take up much of the room. A replica of the bugged Great Seal of The United States that was presented to the US ambassador by the Soviet Union in 1945 is shown as well. It contained a novel HF radio transmitter that did not contain a power source — it was only activated by a strong source of electromagnetic energy when needed, and was thus very difficult to detect. A KL7 electromechanical cryptography machines from the fifties and sixties, as well as a KG-57 satellite encryptor from the mid-seventies.

European cipher disk, used by Denmark 1910–1914

There are some very old manuscripts and some older cipher devices, including a Jefferson-style wheel cipher and a beautiful cipher disk used by the government of Denmark from 1910–1914. I was particularly drawn to a striking early rotor machine machined from brass by Edward Hebern prior to 1920. It was the first machine to use electromechanical rotor

Edward Hebern’s rotor machine

What I was most excited to see was the World War 2 equipment, since I’ve been fascinated by it for some time. Several models of Engima are on display, including an early commercial model, a 3 rotor machine out of it’s case, a 4 rotor machine, and a special example of a type believed to be used by Hitler.

Enigma keyboard, plugboard, and rotors
Enigma plugboard detail
Enigma rotor — exploded view

Additionally, the museum has an impressive US Navy cryptographic bombe machine on display. It has a date of Sept 1943 on one part of the chassis, and used a combination of mechanical rotors and vacuum tubes. The bombes functioned as parallel Enigma analogues that could be run through large numbers of possible combinations looking for possible matches. The original machines were developed by a team led by Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers at Bletchley Park in England, and the design transferred to the US. The US machines built on the work of Turing and Flowers, increasing both speed and parallelism. The Navy bombes were used against the 4 rotor naval Enigma.

The bombe machine
Closeup of bombe rotor
Bombe tube logic circuit

Also on display are German Tunny (SZ40) and Sturgeon cipher machines, as well as a small assembly from the Colossus machine that Tommy Flowers built to decrypt intercepts from them. A final room displays Japanese cipher Red equipment from WW2, and examples of the analogues that were used to break them. There is also a section on the Japanese Purple code, though no intact machines are in the US. A British Typex cipher machine from WW2 is available to examine in the front lobby.

The visitor has the option to accompany a guided tour, or amble about at their own pace. I chose to amble, but listened in on some of the tour. The guide knew the material very well, and appeared genuinely passionate about it. All of the staff I spoke to were professional and helpful.

The gift shop was interesting — it has a great deal of NSA branded gear including shirts, water bottles, and the like, but also some food products made by someone with a distinct sense of humor.

Thermographic Detection Enhancement Sauce
Secret SauceIf you have an interest in any of this equipment and the epic stories of their development, the museum is a must-see. If you are already in the DC area to see the Smithsonian museums, it’s a bit over an hour away, and worth it. If, like me, you’ve been reading about Enigma and Bletchley Park for a while, the opportunity to actually encipher a short message on a real machine is absolutely not to be missed.

You may also find the nearby National Electronics Museum of interest. It was recommended by a staff member at the cryptology museum, and is about a 15 minute drive from there.

All pictures in the post were taken by me at the NSA Cryptologic Museum. They kindly placed no restrictions on publishing images taken within the museum, but did ask that I credit the museum. I thank them for their time and help. If you go and want to take pictures, I recommend bringing a white balance card along, as the ambient lighting is quite warm.

Jason Bowling

Written by

Writer of technology and history, tinkerer, network guy, photographer. https://www.instagram.com/jasonbowlingoh/

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