Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Cryptic Saturday in Maryland

After a lot of digging, shoveling and help from neighbor Tom and his tractor, our steep incline was cleared by Friday evening and we could all get off the hill. I was very pleased having been stuck in the house for two days and on Saturday I was elated to be able to keep to my plans of a tour around the Cryptologic Museum near Fort Meade, MD. I met the group early and was pleased to catch up with some old friends. We all huddled in the glass lobby, steaming up the windows as we waited for the doors to be unlocked.
The museum opened in 1993 and is crammed full of machinery and devices spanning a couple of hundred years used for decoding and coding messages. Our tour guide was a retired NSA employee who was a mine of information. He walked us through explaining about devices used during the Cold War, about supercomputers, cracking codes and famous people, one of whom was Gary Powers, shot down in a CIA U2 spy plane by Russians and held captive for 2 years before being swapped for a Russian spy. He then tested aircraft for Lockheed Martin and eventually wound down by becoming a helicopter weather reporter. But unfortunately in this job, and not during his eventful career, was where he perished. his helicopter crashed because he forgot to fill it up with fuel after a longer than usual report the day before.
This looked like a prop from an old James Bond movie.
There were a lot of machines and phones on display which I found intriguing as these were the kind that disguised voices, broke up the speech pattern or covered it with a white noise. A huge bank of computers stood on one side called the Sigsaly Speech Encipherment System which operated from 1943-46 and required 15 people to operate it and weighed 15 tons. It had 2 handsets. Another machine was The Frostburg Connection device used to perform higher-level mathematical calculations from 1990-99 and could perform 65 billion calculations per second. These were huge blocks of machines with working parts that weren't really visible. What really grabbed my attention were the decoding machines.
There were many of these here, looking like old fashioned typewriters, not really complicated at all to look at but they had the ability to outwit the most clever of human minds, for some of the time. And the most famous of these is the Enigma machine from WWII, which initially didn't take off because it was so expensive at $1200, a sum of money that could buy a house. Used in a large number by the Nazis, they could send messages throughout the war to plot attacks and caused havoc until the Polish military intelligence cracked the codes which in turn created more complex machines by the Nazis.
Our guide explained how they worked, using a map of 3 number codes which were then imput on to the rotors and changed daily or more frequently. I was allowed to have a go and entered 111 on to the 3 rotors, (the silver cogs at the top of the machine). I then tapped in the letters USA on the keyboard and these showed up on a display above the rotors as TFH. When the message receiver got the TFH transmission he would tap those on his keyboard using the same rotor code and USA would appear on his display. It was a very cool experience to actually have a go on this machine.
There were a lot of Enigma machines on display, some of them with 4 rotors, added by the Germans to make the code breaking even harder. The British played a huge part in cracking these codes.
There were some very early books on display also, this one is the first book on  cryptology to be published.
This beautiful Nazi dress dagger caught my eye.
Some of the group listening to how the U.S. Navy Cryptanalytic Bombe determined the rotor settings on Enigma machines.Created by Joseph Desch, an employee with the National Cash Register Company.
Japanese Enigma machines.
And of course, there was a large display on the Comanche, Choctaw and Navajo code talkers, explaining how the Native American languages were used to transmit code messages. The Navajo language was also impossible to decipher because it was like no other language in the way that its verbs change. Here's an interesting little video with some Navajo spoken in it.
These posters must have made an impact during the war.
After our tour, we drove to the Recon field to see some planes that were used during the war.
It was just too cold for me out there. I snapped photos of the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior and the Lockheed C-130 Hercules which were magnificent planes but then had to dash for the warmth of the car and peer out until the others also froze and returned to their vehicles. And then we formed the longest convoy I've ever been in, about 20 cars, and drove to an Italian restaurant for food and beer.
Marshall was still a frozen wonderland when I returned home, this snow will be around for a while. There were plenty of little footprints out the front of the house, making me feel happy that my feathered friends had found the bird seed I'd scattered before I left that morning. Nice to know everyone in and around the house was fed and content.

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