National Cryptologic Museum – No Spies Here

I know, I know ... you were expecting a Blue View today and instead I'm here. The captain is up to his eyeballs in Nine of Cups deck repair and repainting and I couldn’t coax him away long enough to write a blog this week. Perhaps, if I hadn’t dragged him cross-country twice and then up New York to buy a van or if we didn’t stop at the Cryptologic Museum, he would have found time, but oh well. (Exactly who dragged whom?) That’s water under the proverbial bridge. Nevertheless, you’ll have to settle for me today and wait for the captain to come up for air.


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On several occasions when we’ve driven to BWI Airport, we’ve seen the road sign for the National Cryptologic Museum at the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland. When David served in the US Navy back during the Vietnam War era, he worked at NSA(National Security Agency) maintaining their super-computers and the museum always seemed like a place we should stop and visit. After finding Blue, we figured we were entitled to a little entertainment and this was as good a time as any to check out this rather obscure museum. David was looking forward to it and I was happy to go, but wasn’t expecting much. I love it when I’m surprised!

We drove past the NSA headquarters, much larger and significantly changed from the time David served there, then down a rather circuitous road where the museum was nestled in amongst the trees. The museum has limited weekend hours, but we lucked out and it was open with only a few cars in the parking lot. The free admission was much appreciated and a docent tour was just starting when we arrived.

The enthusiastic docent was obviously enthralled with history and cryptology because his ongoing presentation was not only interesting, but provided lots of unique insights into ciphers, symbology and codes. Some we’d thought of before … like deciphering the hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone, but others, like “hobo” symbols were something to which we’d been totally oblivious. He dispelled the urban myth that quilts during the Civil War contained codes designed to direct runaway slaves traveling the Underground Railroad.

We followed cryptology through the centuries … from invisible ink to cipher wheels. It ended up being fascinating and not boring at all.

 Cipher wheels were used extensively during the US Civil War.

Cipher wheels were used extensively during the US Civil War.

Did you ever see the movie “The Imitation Game”? We saw an actual Enigma, the German code machine that was decrypted by Alan Turing allowing the Allies to intercept German intelligence reports during WWII. In theory, the Enigma was a very secure cipher machine with permutations to (get this you mathematicians and engineers ... )

5, 172,165,503,971, 832, 752, 302,775,832,450,730,650 followed by 51 zeros! What a number! But that didn't deter Alan Turing and his team.

One room was devoted to super computers that aren’t so “super” any more like old Crays and Honeywells. David picked out the Sperry-Univac he used to work on only shown on a large poster. That particular computer, which was state of the art in the day and took up a whole room, had less computing power and capability than your home laptop today.

 David worked on Sperry-Univacs at NSA back in the 1968-1971.

David worked on Sperry-Univacs at NSA back in the 1968-1971.

I sat at an actual, albeit obsolete, communications console used during the old Apollo flights. What a thrill just knowing what this was used for in the past and who once sat in command.

 An old Apollo shuttle era communications console was on display.

An old Apollo shuttle era communications console was on display.

All in all, an interesting 3-hour visit and we came away knowing a bit more than when we arrived. Always a good sign!