I have passed the signs for this museum many times when traveling on Route 32 near NSA and last week I visited the museum with a group for a tour. Located in the Colony Inn the museum is a place to gain an understanding more about the history of how the "cat and mouse" games of secret messages has evolved over the years.
As explained by the museum,
"Ciphers and codes, cryptography, change messages into something unintelligible by the use of
keys and lists. Ciphers rearrange letters or change individual letters into a different letter,
number, or symbol based on a prearranged setting known as a key. Codes change entire words
or phrases into other words, number groups, or symbols based on a list or a book. To decrypt
the secret messages, the receiver needs access to the original key. Theoretically, the adversary
wouldn‟t have the key and therefore could not understand the message even if it was captured.
Solving a message without having the key, cryptanalysis, has been a science employed by
governments for as long as people have been using cryptography to make their messages secret.
European governments have a long history of “Black Chambers,” the offices where other
countries‟ diplomatic mail was opened and read."
One of the first exhibits explains how secret messages passed to Washington showed how he had an opportunity to capture British General Cornwallis' troops near Yorktown Va as they waited for resupplies from the British Navy. This information may have made the difference in America winning the Revolutionary War.
Most cipher devices use a cylinder that has rotors that worked like gears that are turned in an order to code a secret message. By each side knowing how to turn the rotors secret messages could be passed between commanders and their troops. The cylinder shown above was found in an estate sale and is believed to have been used by Thomas Jefferson.
Starting with World War I the use of radio to send secret messages presented new challenges in encrypting messages and decoding those messages.
During 1916 and 1917 England had been trying to get the United States to come into the war on the side of the Allies. The reluctance of the US to come into the war was tested when England shared information, obtained by breaking the German diplomatic code, with President Wilson that Germany had approached Mexico to attack the US to reclaim land in the Southwest lost in the Mexican War of 1848. Germany indicated they would support the Mexicans in this effort to keep the US from entering the war against Germany. The Americans didn't trust the information and saw it as a ploy to draw them into World War I. Finally, after the German Foreign Minister Zimmerman admited the accuracy of the information did the US enter the war. Below is a newspaper showing the headline about the message.
Probably the most famous exhibit at the museum is the one for the Enigma machine
that the Allies in World War II used to decode the German military messages. This effort has recently been show in the movie "The Imitation Game
The machine shown above is one of those Enigma machines. At the museum you can actually use one of the machines to see how they work.
The machines had five rotors that each had 25 numbers that gave a possible 10 to the 114 power configurations.
All decoding machines have been decoded except the Sigaba machine shown above
that was developed during World War II by the US Navy. It was used during the war and throughout the 1950's. It had 3 sets of 5 rotors that gave it an almost unbreakable number of settings.
One of the features that you notice at the museum is that the exhibits stop with devices that have been developed after WWII. The only exhibit in the computer age of coding and decoding is the one Cray computer shown below.
These super cooled computers
are thought to be the most powerful computers in the world. The technology used by these computers is still mostly secret as it is the basis of how the NSA operated today. Until some new technology replaces this computer technology you won't see much at the Museum in this area.
One interesting story of the use of super cooled computers that has a Howard County feature is the use of our waste water to cool the newest super computers at NSA.
The water pumping building is just off of Route 32. NSA pays Howard County for this water that we used to pump into the Patuxent River in Savage.