Visit a code-breaking museum located near a property filled with real spies.
The National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., is heavily secured. Most of the agency’s employees can’t talk about their work, and if you think you can casually stroll around the property, think again — unless you’re headed to the small, one-story building nearby housing the National Cryptologic Museum.
The museum opened in 1993 to house NSA artifacts in what was once a Colony 7 Motor Inn. Today, this gem offers the public a rare glimpse into the secret world of code-making and code-breaking. The museum is free, and if you pass muster with the friendly staff at the information desk, consider yourself inside security.
In the museum, you’ll learn about the most dramatic times in American cryptology, from the Civil War through the Cold War and beyond. Among the oldest artifacts: the first printed book on cryptology, from 1518, and an 18th century cipher device that scrambles alphabets to code a message.
The museum’s most popular exhibit is on the German Enigma, which was used to encrypt tens of thousands of messages during World War II.
The museum has five authentic, working Enigma machines, and visitors can use them to create their own secret messages.
Visitors can also write in invisible ink, read about the Native American Code Talkers (the Navajo language as well as Choctaw and other Native American languages were considered unbreakable codes in World War II), learn how the Soviets bugged the U.S. during the Cold War era, play with a NASA communications console that controlled and configured the cryptologic units between the space shuttle and the Johnson Space Center and see an early NSA supercomputer.
Curator Patrick Weadon says it’s tricky to teach people about cryptology “without giving away the crown jewels,” meaning that the government has to handle its secrets with extreme care. The museum can only display a document or artifact once the government has declassified it. Then, Weadon says, it’s the museum’s job to tell the tale.
“We take stories from the past,” he says, “and hope people can extrapolate from those stories how important the present-day mission is.”
Gifts For The Cryptologist
At the National Cryptologic Museum’s gift shop, you’ll find souvenir standbys, including koozies, shot glasses and golf balls. But you’ll also find nuggets like the NSA Moscow mule mug ($17.50), a G.l. Joe Navajo Code Talker ($54), a periscope ($11) and an NSA Magic 8 ball ($8.75).
It’s tough to pass up night goggles ($17.50) or NSA playing cards ($3.25), but the coolest item may be the cheapest: a heat-sensitive NSA pencil (55 cents). It changes colors when you hold it.
Q&A With Curator Patrick Weadon
Q: NSA wasn’t a household name until about five years ago. How has that changed things at the museum?
A: It hasn’t. The attendance is consistently 50,000 to 70,000 a year. And I can count on one hand the number of visitors who have brought up any controversies.
Q: Do you see cryptology history repeating itself?
A: This museum is a testament to the fact that since the beginning of time, people have been protecting information. Group A believes they have secure means of communication. Group B gets through security. Group A wonders how they could have been so shortsighted.
This repeats itself over and over again. Once you believe everything is copacetic, you set yourself up for failure.
Q: I know you can’t play favorites with the exhibits, but…
A: Oh, I don’t have a problem playing favorites! One is the most popular exhibit, the Enigma, which attracts visitors from around the world. It’s our Mona Lisa. The other is an exhibit on the Battle of Midway, probably the best example of cryptology. (After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. broke Japan’s naval code and staged an ambush that changed the course of the war.) The point we make is that cryptologists don’t win battles. But they do help a country achieve its goals, and they do save lives.