Cryptology may seem like an obscure line of work, but there is no question that sending, receiving, and decoding secret messages has played a major role in more than one stunning military victory. The National Cryptologic Museum—which is located next to the National Security Agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland—offers visitors a chance to learn how a seemingly insignificant string of words or symbols can decide the fate of entire nations.
The National Cryptologic Museum showcases the history of cryptology, from a 1518 book of mysterious symbols entitled Polygraphiae by Johannes Trithemius, to more recent United States Air Force intelligence gathering technology employed during Operation Desert Strom. The museum even features an Enigma machine which officials in Nazi Germany used to send encoded messages. Allied forces ultimately decrypted some key messages from the Enigma machine—an achievement which many historians believe significantly shortened World War II and helped to secure an Allied victory.
One of the National Cryptologic Museum’s most popular exhibits explores the history of the Navajo Code Talkers. The Navajo Code Talkers were Navajo men who were recruited by the United States military to create military communications in their native language. Prior to World War II, the language that the Navajo people spoke was almost entirely unknown to those outside of North America. The Navajo language was also largely verbal so there was no written reference material. Axis forces never did crack the code created by the Navajo Code Talkers. Allied forces triumphed in World War II thanks to the contributions of the Navajo people.
Cryptology is undeniably technical, but it is exciting to consider how secret communications have shaped world history. Imagining yourself working around the clock to crack a secret code or create one is the stuff that thrillers are made of. Spending an afternoon surveying authentic spy tools will certainly fuel your imagination.