Tales of code, from Enigma to `Barney'

Education

May 13, 2007|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,Special to The Sun

For Mark Elton and his 9-year-old son, Mackenzie, the National Cryptologic Museum seemed an ideal place to visit.

"We were zipping up [Interstate] 295 and saw the sign for the museum," said Mark Elton, a Catonsville resident. "My son's in the Young Marine [Program] and in Scouts, so I thought this was a good place to come in and spend our day off." They weren't alone.

Danny and Tricia Samuel also decided to check out the museum on a recent visit from Ohio to the Baltimore-Washington area. Friends in Baltimore thought they would enjoy the experience.

"We're computer and information geeks, so they thought we would like this," said Tricia Samuel.

"I had to see the old supercomputer, `Barney,'" said Danny Samuel, referring to the Cray Research Inc. machine nicknamed affectionately for the stuffed purple dinosaur that sat atop it. "I had to see it."

The National Cryptologic Museum, adjacent to the National Security Agency in Anne Arundel County, might not be the first museum that comes to mind as a place to visit, but many have discovered it's worth the trip.

The 50,000 to 60,000 visitors who come to the museum annually get to take a peek into the secret world of cryptology - the making and breaking of codes.

Located in a building of a former motel complex acquired by the NSA in the early 1990s, the museum doesn't give an overwhelming first impression. But once inside, visitors are pleasantly surprised, said Patrick Weadon, curator of the museum.

"People aren't expecting much, but when they leave they have a completely different perspective," he said, "They are astounded and amazed at the incredible stories and the role the making and breaking of codes played throughout history."

Opened to the public in December 1993, the museum offers a priceless collection and a timely educational tool. But for those who don't consider themselves scholars of cryptology - or even know what cryptology is, for that matter - it offers an insiders' look into the world of codes. It's history told from a different perspective.

The most popular exhibit, the Enigma, is the perfect example of why the museum is a hit. It not only offers an up-close-and-personal look at several of the German cipher machines, but it also has one that visitors can touch and operate.

The typewriter-like device of the World War II era could pump out countless code possibilities. The "electromechanical machine" used a combination of wired rotors to change each letter that was typed.

"You could strike one key 17,000 times, and it wouldn't repeat," said Weadon. But despite the promise of the code it produced, which was thought to be unbreakable, Polish, U.S. and British intelligence workers were able to decipher it. While Weadon says you don't win wars because you can make or break codes better, the information gained is a clear advantage.

Of the many visitors who come to the museum each year, about 5,000 are students. "We're one of the few places a math class can come on a field trip," said Jennifer Wilcox, the museum's education coordinator. "How does math apply in the real world? It comes across loud and clear here."

Age-appropriate programs are designed to help students understand cryptology's role in world history and offer students of history, mathematics and computer science a place to explore their craft.

In today's world, where students use computerized devices that fit in the palm of their hands, they often find the huge supercomputers one of the most impressive exhibits, says Wilcox.

"The size of the computers in the exhibit, that blows their mind," she said. It's also the most recent example of modern-day code breaking at the museum. "It can do 65 billion calculations per second. That helps you understand the type of world we're living in," said Weadon. "Because they are putting computers that powerful in museums."

Walking through the museum, it's hard not to be impressed by cryptology's impact on history. There are devices, techniques and stories for each time period in U.S. history. All of the exhibits featured are declassified, but at one time many were top-secret.

They range from the 16th century through the early 1990s. The museum features the only known example of the U.S. Navy Cryptanalytic Bombe, which helped to break the code of the Enigma.

There's also a part of one of the only Japanese imperial navy encryption devices known to still exist. Referred to as "Purple," the machine was captured on Saipan when U.S. forces took the island in June 1944. Cryptanalysts needed 18 months to break Purple.

New to the museum is a collection donated by the leading historian in the field, David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers. Works range from the 1518 Polygraphiae libri sex, the first known printed book on cryptology, to Kahn's notes of his interviews with modern cryptologists.

One of the most fascinating exhibits showcases the World War I and World War II "code talkers." These American Indians used their languages as a code and worked as radio communicators during the two wars. The code talkers never made a mistake in transmission, and their codes were never broken.

Museum admission is free.

Open to the public: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; first and third Saturdays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Closed Sundays and federal holidays. Call 301-688-5849 for more information or go to www.nsa.gov/museum.

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