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MYVoice Travel Spy MuseumAl Gray (right), a former NSA employee and retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant, served as unofficial tour guide for Brad Karner (left), during his visit to the NCM.
MYVoice Travel Spy Museum
Have you ever wanted to be a spy?
In March, I was able to know what that felt like by visiting the for the National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic Museum (NCM) in Fort Meade. I went with children’s author Jennifer Keats Curtis, her latest book is Saving Squeak. We were led by an unofficial tour guide, a former spy and Air Force Chief Master Sergeant, Al Gray. There were many awesome spy artifacts and objects from World War II.
The NCM also had a large section on language and codes. The Rosetta stone, a large piece of rock with inscribed hieroglyphics, Greek and Coptic, was a feature of great interest because the languages translated each other. Did you know that there are over 6,800 languages? Each language contains thousands of words, with multiple translations for each word. An interesting fact I learned was that the letter E is the most common letter used in the English language.
While touring the codes section, I learned what a large role codes played during wartime. For example, the Chinese would intercept a message (digits), then decode those digits and translate them, sometimes giving them valuable information. And, during World War II, the British used codes to translate German communications; but, they used a semi-automatic mechanical way instead of manually translating the code. That machine, which was loud and mostly operated by women, was called the Cryptanalytic Bombe.
On the tour, Mr. Gray showed us the Enigma, a translation machine originally used for commercial use to shorten a message; it allowed the sender to save money. The Enigma worked by typing in a letter, then the mechanical analog would change the letter by scrambling the word into something different. There were many combinations made by the Enigma, but the Polish were able to decode some Enigma messages mathematically, according to Mr. Gray. A working model of Enigma is on display at the NCM.
The Cipher Wheel was also used to decode messages. Volunteers at the museum provide one to kids who visit the museum so that they can perform a scavenger hunt. According to Mr. Gray, the wheel is a model of the one used during the Civil War.
During our tour, I learned that Civil War soldiers were unassisted by any technology that supported long-distance communications. There was no way to obtain enemy messages. Then, Samuel F.B. Morse tested improved telegraphs, which allowed both long distance communications and interception of enemy messages.
The final part of our tour was the exhibit with computers. The first super computer was the XMP-22 invented in 1884. This was arguably the most powerful computer at the time. It could run 420 million operations per second. The XMP-22 was upgraded to the XMP-24 and later the supercomputer was replaced by the second generation, YMP, which had 32 gigabytes. There were models of these supercomputers on display in the museum. Mr. Gray discussed with us the size of the first computers as compared how small the computers have now become.
Overall, this museum is very interesting; it is definitely a place to visit on your next vacation. Best of all, admission is free!
For more information: www.nsa.gov/about/cryptologic_heritage/museum/
6th grader Brad Karner, Ridgely Middle School, Baltimore County, hopes to use what he learned at the spy museum when he writes his first mystery.