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Making and breaking codes at the NSA museum

Road Trip 2010: CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman stops in on the National Cryptologic Museum and sees a bit of the history of codes and codebreaking.

The National Cryptologic Museum, run by the National Security Agency, is a treasure trove of artifacts of the modern--and not so modern--history of code making and code breaking devices. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

FORT MEADE, Md.--For anyone with even the vaguest sense of the history of World War II, the term "Enigma" should hold some special meaning.

That, of course, was the name of the encryption device the Germans used to such great success during the first years of the war, allowing them to pass messages without worry of their being decrypted by the Allies.

But when the Allies finally solved the mystery of the Enigma, it turned the course of the war. The Germans were no longer able to stay ahead of the Allies and were no longer able to communicate in secret with anywhere near the efficacy that they had before.

Click here for a full photo gallery from the NSA's National Cryptologic Museum.

For any fans of the history of the Enigma, or of cryptology in general, there's one place that is a can't miss: the National Cryptologic Museum, run by the U.S. National Security Agency here. I had originally hoped that, as part of Road Trip 2010, I would be able to visit the NSA and talk to folks there about the latest in cryptologic techniques--but that was not to be. Fortunately, the museum allowed me--and many others--a chance to see where things in that field have been, and, using our imaginations, to see where things might be going next.

The museum features sections on the encryption devices and technologies used during the Civil War, the Cold War, World War II, and in the post-Cold War era. From a set of the various Enigmas used by the different branches of the German military services, to 19th century ciphers to cipher wheels and reels used by the Confederate government, it's hard to imagine a more complete collection anywhere. And who better to host it than the NSA?

There's also unexpected exhibits, such as one on the coded signals that hobos would use to alert each other to the best places to panhandle or squat or to avoid at all costs, to the secret messages encrypted in quilts made by slaves trying to help each other escape to freedom, to some of the supercomputers used by the NSA, the museum takes visitors on a rich journey through the history of codes and code breaking.

The dilemma I face while there was how much time to spend. I had figured it would take about an hour to tour the place, especially after I saw it from the outside. It's housed in a small, nondescript building not far from the NSA's world-famous headquarters. But once inside the museum, I realized that an hour wouldn't be nearly enough time to soak in the full breadth of what was on display.

Still, I tried to do the best I could, and with the photos I took--and am presenting in my associated photo gallery on the museum--I hope that I've conveyed enough of a sense of the place to make any visitor to Washington--or resident, for that matter--take the drive up Maryland Highway 295 and check it out for yourself. Just make sure that you turn left at the two large, all-glass buildings. The NSA would probably prefer that.

For the next week, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.