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Spy Museum launches pop-up exhibit of codebreaking artifacts

by Samantha Davis-Friedman

The International Spy Museum (SPY) in Washington, D.C. is launching a limited-run mini pop-up exhibit from April 5 through May 31, 2021. The one-of-a-kind, breakthrough codebreaking items are on loan from NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum (NCM), which collects, preserves, and showcases unique cryptologic treasures.

International Spy Museum
Photos courtesy of the International Spy Museum

“At a time when people are glued to their iPhones, locked in endless Zoom meetings, or wondering what personal information will be hacked next, the public is increasingly curious about the machinery that keeps their communications private and protected,” shared Dr. Andrew Hammond, the historian & curator at the International Spy Museum. “Partnering with the National Cryptological Museum on this pop-up exhibit allows us to share […] some of the secret history of secure communications. Prepare for superstar artifacts, colorful characters, and history-making machines — right here, in the heart of Washington D.C.”

“Codes, Ciphers, & Mysteries: NSA Treasures Tell Their Secrets” will showcase a selection of 13 historic objects used for codemaking, codebreaking, and secure communications, some of which have played a key role in shaping world history.

“The National Cryptologic Museum has been busy redesigning its exhibits and revitalizing its building while we remain closed,” shared Dr. Vince Houghton, director of the National Cryptologic Museum. “As we continue to pursue our goal to reopen in the summer, we’ve loaned the International Spy Museum some of the rarest, oldest, most historically significant code and cipher artifacts in the world.”

The special display in the Briefing Center will allow guests to expand their knowledge beyond the museum’s permanent exhibit on codes.

Highlights of “Codes, Ciphers, & Mysteries” include:

Cylinder Cipher
Cylinder Cipher
  • Cylinder Cipher, late 18th/early 19th century — Believed to be the oldest existing true cipher device in the world, this wheel cipher is similar to one designed by Thomas Jefferson.
International Spy Museum PURPLE Analog No. 1
PURPLE Analog No. 1
  • PURPLE Analog No. 1, 1940 — The machine built to crack the Japanese PURPLE code. This exact machine is responsible for decrypting the famous 14-part message telling the Japanese ambassador to end diplomatic negotiations with the U.S. in advance of the Pearl Harbor attacks.
Colossus
Colossus
  • Piece of Colossus, 1944 — Colossus was the world’s first-ever electronic computer, built by the British to break Germany’s sophisticated Lorenz cipher machine.
International Spy Museum Challenger Encryption System
Challenger Encryption System
  • U.S. Space Shuttle Challenger Encryption System, 1983 — Built by the NSA, this high-level encryption system was collected from the Challenger’s debris after it broke apart 73 seconds into its mission.
Comanche Notebook
Comanche Notebook
  • PACE TR-10, 1960 — Believed to be the first desktop analog computer used at NSA, developed by Electronic Associates Inc. in New Jersey.
  • JN-25 Depth Analyzer, 1942 — Used to help U.S. codebreakers crack JN-25, the main Japanese naval code, which allowed the less experienced U.S. Navy to score a decisive victory against Japan at the Battle of Midway.  This artifact has never before been seen by the public.

When the “Codes, Ciphers, & Mysteries” pop-up closes on May 31, 2021, the artifacts will return to the National Cryptologic Museum at Ft. Meade, Maryland. The museum expects to reopen to the public this summer.

Click here for more information about the International Spy Museum.

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