Wishing for a Secret Decoder Ring: Deciphering the Cryptologic Museum

Seriously, I NEEDED a secret decoder ring; a remedial exhibit; a dunce cap. I didn’t understand anything at the National Cryptologic Museum until a late-teens son said, “Here Mom, I’ll explain this Nazi encrypter to you.” My supersonic hearing engaged and I dashed over from another side of the museum, eager for someone to explain in mono-syllabic words.

It’s ironic that a museum about decoding, cryptography, and the need for brevity used so many words in their signage. So many unnecessary words. So many words that didn’t make sense when put together.

Your First Task, Should You Choose to Accept It

The directions to the museum took you past the daunting gate for the NSA, and then in writing said, “pass the aircraft….” That has never been a landmark for me before. You?

Aircraft near Cryptologic Musuem

Can You Hear Me Now? WWI

Radio brought the ability to listen to the enemy. An advance as important as the machine gun and the plane.

A Focus on WWII

Sure, there were code activities in the Civil War and after WWII, but I didn’t learn about them. The kid mentioned above didn’t go through the whole museum with me, so I didn’t learn anything else. Sorry.

Truly, this museum baffled me. And I so wanted to understand it. Clearly I’m not meant for military intelligence—or at least this kind (she says defensively). BTW, my Dad was meant for military intelligence. Yup, he knew things. He briefed people. He would have been good to have at the museum….

It Always Starts with the Native Americans

The Navajo Code Talkers were 29 recruits from various tribes who used the Navajo language for U.S. military code. They translated 400 military terms into Navajo—words that didn’t exist in their native vocabulary.

With this skill, they could transmit information—both among the Allies and deciphered intel about the enemy.

The Enigma Machine

You’ve been so patient, waiting to find out what that (sickeningly) clever teen taught me. He also offered to explain about today’s encryption techniques and I declined—I was already feeling inadequate and my mind was mush.

The Enigma was a code-deciphering machine. You typed on the keyboard that looked like a typewriter, and it registered with a “real” letter that lights up. So the letter “s” was really the letter “h,” for example. When a code came through (via wire?), you typed it into the Enigma and learned what it was really saying. Asking me to explain how that worked is like asking me to explain how a computer works, or fire, or what winter smells like. So we’re done here.

The museum gave you a practice code to decipher, so you could experience the effort. The message said, “Drink more Ovaltine.” Just kidding.

What’s truly phenomenal is that the cipher changed regularly: daily or hourly, some predetermined time. How do you do that in the 1940s? You print the ciphers in a book—in advance. And then protect the book mightily.

Cryptologic Musuem


What tidbit can you share about wartime intel? Any war, any time.

Note: these pics are from Flickr. I was too busy trying to figure out what was going on to even think about taking pictures. My brain was truly muddled.

2 Responses


Truly fascinated by the fascinating places you’re visiting. So often when touring/vacationing in cities, my time is spent in the better-known, “on-the-list” locales. With your adventure/journey, you have the time – and the curiosity – to explore in depth. So through you, I’m gaining perspective of roads less taken and opportunities more interesting. Thank you!

And on that note, I believe you’ve been to Utah. I’m going to check out past blogs to see what I should see when visiting that area in the fall.

Thank you for insight, opinions, must-see sights, and, most of all, for wrapping them in good humor.


I’ll need to verify with you here. Which isn’t one thing I normally do! I enjoy reading a submit that may make individuals think. Additionally, thanks for allowing me to comment!

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