Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Enigma Encryption, Eagle Emblem, Etc.

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A few years ago a friend and I visited the National Cryptologic Museum outside Washington, DC. This was shortly after I'd finished Neal Stephenson's excellent Cryptonomicon, so I was ready to gorge myself on all things code-making and code-breaking.

Sadly, the museum had practically nothing from the last 10-20 years on display. Of course, those technologies are still in use today, so that wasn't surprising. This was: We got a personal tour from a former head of the NSA.

He was the museum director at the time, and there were few patrons there that Friday afternoon, so he accompanied us through half the building. Along with giving us detailed explanations about history's greatest cryptologic devices and techniques — such as the Engima machine during WWII — he also shared other interesting tales of espionage.

For instance, in 1946 Soviet school children presented the American Ambassador with a wooden replica of the U.S. Great Seal. The seal hung in his office for six years before anyone discovered the small microphone hidden inside the carving of the eagle.

Another story dealt with secrets escaping through a fireplace.1 But for me the museum's real highlights were the codes and ciphers and encryption. I mean, sometimes it's just fun to send things in code. For instance, look what I can do to the phrase "THIS IS AN ENCRYPTED MESSAGE" by implementing two little rules:


It's not just simple letter substitution, like you'd find in a cryptogram. As you can see, a message can quickly become indecipherable unless you: a) know the encryption method, b) have a code-cracking computer (or code-cracking brain), or c) happen to know the original message, allowing you to ignore the encrypted one completely. (By the way, if you don't want to reverse engineer my code, the answer's in the footnotes.)2 Sure, the Enigma machine and its progeny utilize far more complex algorithms, but I'd say it's pretty good for a couple minutes' work by a novice. I might even work it into a novel.

Anyway, if you're ever in the DC area and get the chance, I recommend checking out the National Cryptologic Museum. Or, if it sounds too geeky for you (or you have easily-bored children), I'd suggest the nearby International Spy Museum instead.

Oh, and remember...

1 I don't remember all the details, but I think this happened at an embassy in China. National secrets were getting out, and they couldn't figure out how. Multiple searches over a period of months (or years) turned up no bugs of any kind. And then someone thought to try lighting a fire in the fireplace. Smoke quickly filled the room. Turns out the fireplace had been built specifically so any conversation would echo down through the grate and along a 100-foot underground tunnel to where a Chinese agent sat recording every word.
2 I switched each vowel to either the previous vowel or the next one, in alternating fashion and starting with the previous. I did the same for the consonants, but starting with the next. (Oh, and rather than deal with the Y as a vowel, I just left it as it was.)

This post is part of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge, hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh and seven others. Go check out the other participants!


  1. The spy museum sounds creepy cool! Thanks for stopping by:)

  2. I saw a show on that Sanborn sculpture at the NSA-- the one with the cryptogram that's never been solved. Cool.

  3. Enigma! I read a super book on that called "Ultra Goes To War" years ago. Hope to see Bletchley Park when I visit the UK.

  4. Those stories are really interesting! Crazy that no one checked the fireplace prior to that.

  5. If I ever go to DC, I'll spend most of my time in museums. I knew that as a teen, but now your post confirms that it is a worthwhile desire.

  6. That sounds like a very interesting museum. Interesting post.

  7. Sounds like you had a great time visiting! I've always loved codes and ciphers, couldn't break yours though ;)

    Great Challenge entry!



  8. Love your cypher, and, by the way, Ralphie says, "Hi."

  9. when i first glanced at your post, i thought you were talking about Cryptozoology, and i almost peed my pants, because i'm a cryptid fiend. And then i saw you were actually talking about cryptology and i got sad

  10. Hi!
    That was very informative. I didn't know all that. Thanks for sharing. Have a great day!

    Just Books

  11. With code like that maybe you should rename your blog "Sometimes the Wheel is on Cypher." Just a suggestion. Great stuff!

  12. DC has so many cool museums and other places to see. I wish I had a few months and a ton of money just to stay there a while and see them all.
    This is a fascinating post.

    Contrary to my usual practice of subscribing to comments, to save time during this early part of the challenge I will not be doing so at this time. If you want to respond to my comment, please email me directly from your email notification for the comment.
    Thanks. And I truly appreciate your efforts.

    Tossing It Out
    Twitter hashtag: #atozchallenge

  13. Have you ever heard of the Voynich Manuscript? Now there's an encryption enigma. Interesting post, btw :)

  14. ps I very much enjoyed Perdido Street Station.

  15. interesting post. If I ever get back to D.C. i'll check the museum out.

  16. Love when a tour becomes special...have to ask, did your guide disappear in a puff of smoke or anything fun like that -- no, I'm not saying he's the embodiment of evil, but that, like as former head secret-squirrel he must have some neat toys for getting into and out of rooms...oh, no, I'm thinking of Harry Potter...never mind.
    Great post, may I suggest the book "A Man Called Intrepid" for the background to Enigma and the beginnings of OSA, NSA and all the other alphabet soup combinations our governments love to use when talking code...


  17. doreen: The Spy Museum is especially fun if you have kids.

    RJR: Thanks! Spy stories are always intriguing.

    Your Highness: I read an article on that Sanborn sculpture. It's amazing how long it's taken our top code-breakers to break even part of it. It's possible no one will ever crack that fourth layer of encryption...

    li: Thanks for the Ultra recommendation, I might have to check that out.

    Sarah: Perhaps, but I've lived in three homes with fireplaces, and not once have I used one for its actual purpose. The thermostat is so much easier.

    damyanti: And there are so many great ones to choose from. I've probably been to a dozen or so, but never more than 3 or 4 in one trip...

    Cheree: I certainly found it interesting, anyway. And it's not one hears about often, so I thought it deserved mention.

    Rachael: Thanks! And it's true; even when someone gives you the method, deciphering code can be tricky.

    Scott: Congrats on being the first to decrypt my closing statement! By the way, some interesting trivia: Apparently Ralphie has since had bit parts in both Elf and Four Christmases.

    Falen: What if I tell you the code was created by Bigfoot and Nessie to send messages to each other without any chupacabra (or sharktopus) being able read them? Does that make it better?

    Sherrie: You're welcome. Glad I could help.

    Jeffrey: Knowing me, I'd take it one further: "Sometimes, Sometimes the Wheel is on Fire is on Cipher." Yeah, that's no good. Let's stick with yours.

    Arlee: I know you'll never see this, but... Luckily, most of the major D.C. museums are free. You'd just need to find a place to crash. I suggest polling the A to Z Challenge participants about available couches...

    mshatch: No, I'd never heard of the Voynich Manuscript before. It's fascinating. My guess is that it was done by someone in a mental institution. Wait, they probably didn't have those in the 1400s. New theory: It was written by an ascendant of J.R.R. Tolkein. Also, I'm enjoying Perdido so far, but only 100 pages in. Just 600 more to go!

    Beth: For reference, the museum is actually located at the NSA exit off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

    moe: Nope, no puff of smoke. But there may have been a hidden doorway... which doesn't sound nearly as exciting if I say the door was around a corner. And thanks for the Intrepid recommendation. I may have to check that out.

  18. That sounds very cool. I wish I had known about it when I lived in PA. Would have made for an awesome weekend trip!


  19. Oooh, have you ever read PopCo?? I would recommend it. I lurve cryptology. One day, I shall crack the biggest code! The BIGGEST! don't question my logic.

  20. Sounds like heaps of fun. I love codes and stuff like that :)

  21. I love all this spy stuff. I'll be sure to check out that museum if I ever find myself in DC. All this talk of codes reminds me of a certain novel by Dan Brown. :P

  22. Interesting stories of spying. My boys would LOVE the spy museum.

  23. Dafeenah: Oh well, there's always next time you visit.

    Alex: Yes, yes it is.

    Hannah: No, I'd never even heard of PopCo But now I'll definitely have to check it out. And I don't doubt your skills; one day you will break a code written in letters FIFTY FEET TALL!

    Lynda: Heaps -- and loads -- of fun, actually.

    nutschell: If you ever find yourself in D.C., I hope it's a planned excursion and you didn't just wake up there unexpectedly. And who is this "Dan Brown" of which you speak? :)

  24. Mary: Certainly, I suspect they would.

  25. Oh how cool - love the story about the present from the Russian schoolchildren! *starts plotting new book*