Codemaking and codebreaking on display at the National Cryptologic Museum

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The National Cryptologic Museum, which opened in 1993, is the National Security Agency’s “principal gateway to the public.”

Photos and text by Barbara Haddock Taylor

Museum visitors catch glimpses into the secret world of our nation’s efforts at codemaking and codebreaking throughout its history, from the time of Thomas Jefferson until the early 2000s. Thousands of artifacts help tell the story of the United States’ efforts to keep its secrets and to learn those of other nations.

Several of the exhibits focus on the many unsung heroes in the cryptology world, such as the Navajo codebreakers of World War II and Frank Rowlett, an American who invented the SIGABA machine, a message encryption machine with 15 rotors whose code was never broken and was used from World War II until the 1950s.

Visitors can see fascinating machines such as the Frostburg Super Computer, used from 1990 until 1997, which did computations at the rate of 65 billion per second. They can encrypt their own message on a genuine German “Enigma” machine from World War II, which was considered unbreakable until a group of mathematicians from Poland solved the cipher system. Their efforts enabled the United States and its allies to read all the German plans for World War II.