FORT MEADE, Md. — Even in a cavernous secret warehouse filled floor to ceiling with thousands of unique items, a mammoth cryptologic machine — its black paint long faded from decades of hiding away — stands out.
The machine is strikingly taller and wider than nearly all of the other National Cryptologic Museum (NCM) artifacts stored inside NSA’s 281,000-square-foot storage facility, which is located just a few miles from NSA headquarters. While its aging paper tag, illegible and falling apart, provides zero hints to the history behind the mysterious box, it’s the words, etched in colorless letters on the face of the machine that have the museum staff most eager to crack its code.
“We don’t quite know what it is just yet, but we think it’s something important — the reason being you have German writing on there, but you also have some English,” NCM collections manager Spencer Allenbaugh said. “It’s not very often you see something like that.”
It’s one of numerous discoveries made by the NCM staff since last summer, when it kicked off a months-long endeavor to sort through and document hundreds of artifacts stowed away on floor-to-ceiling shelves on either side of the lengthy warehouse aisles dedicated for use by the museum.
While some of the artifacts, such as the unidentified cryptologic machine, are too big to be placed in containers, most were found piled together inside slowly deteriorating wooden crates — many stamped “U.S. WAR DEPARTMENT.”
The first stage of their inventory efforts saw the NCM staff meticulously transfer a majority of its items into nearly 150 brand-new containers. The team pried, sawed, and hammered open the old crates, becoming the first people in more than a decade to set eyes on the contents.
“It used to be kind of a nightmare. You’d come in and there were crates that have no lids on them, crates that were falling apart, stuff that was super dusty in just shrink-wrap,” Allenbaugh said. “For us to get in here and redo all these crates was just huge, even for preservation reasons.”
Now, the museum staff is going back through its warehoused collection to determine the future of its many artifacts. All this work is taking place ahead of NCM’s major renovation and highly anticipated opening planned for early fall.
“My goal was to pare down the collection until it was manageable and then categorize everything,” said NCM director Vince Houghton, who joined the Agency in late 2020 after serving as historian and curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington. “We have objects in the warehouse that we may one day want to put on display, artifacts that we want to put on display immediately, … and a menu of objects [to potentially loan to] other museums.”
Shortly after sunrise on a Wednesday, Allenbaugh is already at the warehouse, working diligently alongside his teammate Deana Bowles, who serves as NCM deputy collections manager and assistant librarian. Wearing latex gloves, the pair cracks open a series of crates and separate the contents onto two pallets: one for items remaining in the museum’s possession and the other for artifacts marked for excess — a fate that potentially includes the items being broken down and sanitized by the warehouse for disposal.
“A lot of stuff that was built back then lasted, and we’re lucky that most of the [warehoused items] haven’t deteriorated, but some of these artifacts, you’ll lift them, and you can feel it,” Allenbaugh says. “[Some] are sturdy, but some [fall apart], so you have to be careful when you’re handling them. There’s a lot of that, where we’ll open up crates and it’s not pretty in there.”
“There are some things, even if they’re falling apart, that you hold on to — like an Enigma, or any of the Japanese Purple equipment, and things like that,” he adds, referencing the World War II cipher machines from Germany and Japan. “It’s kind of a fine line you have to work through.”
Going row by row, crate by crate, the pair cracks open a container, sifts through the content, separates and documents the items, then re-seals the crates so they can be returned to the shelves.
“Then it’s on to the next row,” Allenbaugh says. “It’s a project that does take time, but it’s interesting because you get to see a piece of history — plus it’s fun to handle this stuff and see what they were working on during World War II and [other periods].”
“We’re definitely the first people to handle some of these artifacts in decades, and it’s crazy to see some of the things that come through here,” he adds. “It’s a process, but it’s a fun process, too. You literally get to play Indiana Jones for a living, which is kind of cool.”
Bowles squints as she sizes up a dark-colored cipher machine lurking on one of the lower shelves.
“How much does that SIGABA weigh?” she asks Allenbaugh, using the more common term given for this particular cipher machine used by the United States Army and Navy from WWII until the 1950s.
“Nothing, because the motor was ripped out of it,” he responds. “That’s just the shell — but it’s important enough to hang on to it.”
The SIGABA, also called an ECM (electric cipher machine) in the Navy, is the only machine system used during the Second World War to remain completely unbroken by an enemy. Despite the fact that it’s missing parts, this warehouse treasure holds significant historical value and will allow the NCM to accurately and effectively tell the timeline of American cryptology.
“When we [look over a device], we want to know if it has value to the museum, if it’s useful for us to display, if it’s falling apart, and does it have a good story to tell?” Allenbaugh says. “They trust if I’m going to look at it, I’m not going to throw something away that shouldn’t be thrown away.”
As the list of items in the collection grows, the museum’s director finds himself challenged with deciding which items will be exhibited when the Museum opens this fall, and which items will remain in storage.
“We now have a really good problem,” Houghton said. “Less than a year ago, I made a master list for the museum, and I now have to start kicking artifacts off because we keep finding stuff that’s cooler.”
One of those “cooler” artifacts includes the Russian Fish, an oversized machine from the 1940s that will eventually help headline the museum’s Cold War-era collection.
A German multichannel intercept teletype machine, it was captured by the Americans during WWII and later put into service against the Russians, providing the U.S. with its only signals intelligence on the Soviet Union for years. The rare machine marks one of the most important technologies of the time period — and will soon be on display for the public.
“The interesting thing about the Russian Fish is you pop it open and it has four handles on either side because it’s 500 pounds and needs to be lifted by four people. It just looks like [the Ark of the Covenant],” Allenbaugh said with a laugh, referring to the long-lost religious artifact, pursued by fictional archeologist Indiana Jones, that eventually wound up in a mysterious government warehouse facility at the conclusion of the hit Hollywood film. “Before we knew what it was, we said, ‘That’s important, and we need to do research and figure out what it is.’”
As mysterious items continued to be uncrated, the museum staff quickly began to realize how much more they needed to learn about their rapidly growing collection.
“It’s exciting,” Bowles said. “It’s crazy that these artifacts have just been here. They were wrapped up and put in crates decades ago and shipped off. It always blows my mind that we have all this and it’s just hanging out in the warehouse.”
Behind a solid steel door in the rear of the National Cryptologic Museum, Rob Simpson operates in an environment befitting a librarian within the Intelligence Community.
His unclassified laptop — open on a workbench — and the nearby phones may be the only modern pieces of technology. They reside in a softly lit room that’s safekeeping stacks upon stacks of rare cryptologic books (several date back to the 16th century), historical manuscripts, and unique artifacts while the museum undergoes renovations.
Behind the scenes, he’s proved critical in helping NCM piece together information surrounding the unknown items re-discovered in the warehouse.
For example, he will eventually assist Allenbaugh in deciphering the hidden history behind the giant black-painted unidentified machine currently on one of the warehouse shelves.
In the museum’s inventory, it’s simply titled: “German One-Time Tape Generator.” It was also likely mislabeled years ago, similar to many of the items rediscovered in the warehouse, according to Allenbaugh.
“When you’re looking at something — such as the big German box — we know there’s probably a good story to go along with it; we just haven’t figured out what it is yet,” Allenbaugh said. “The name doesn’t necessarily make sense because, historically, the most-known ones came after when we think this thing was actually built.”
Said Simpson: “With that one, we haven't started researching it yet because we wanted to make sure we have the history of the Russian Fish down. That piece looks like it might have been part of the same kind of gear, so soon we’ll go do a deep dive.”
For Simpson and Allenbaugh, the in-depth research will begin locally with consultation with NSA historians and the NSA Archives. They also use online search engines and expeditions into scholarly magazines, or connect with experts in the field to identify found artifacts and flesh out the documentation associated with each item.
“There are experts out there,” Simpson said. “I got here about a year and a half before Spencer did, and I was able to establish relationships with some scholars and researchers. Now, when he comes to me with something, I say, ‘You need to talk to this math professor who is an expert on Japanese crypto during World War II,’ or ‘You need to talk to this guy who lives down in North Carolina and rebuilds Enigmas.’”
“I’ve got a research bent anyway,” he added. “It’s my favorite thing in the world. Over the years I've figured out where to research things.”
The end game remains the same: to accurately and innovatively tell the story of cryptology in American history.
Now firmly in the digital age, the National Cryptologic Museum, which opened back in 1993, is changing up how it wants to connect with the public.
“We have a tabula rasa — a blank slate. We can reimagine this museum,” said Houghton, explaining how the NCM’s focus is to inspire visitors. “We’re excited about it.”
“The museum did exceptional work for years, but now we’re in the position to do more because of the way the world is,” Houghton continued. “When people find out who we are and what we are, then the museum becomes a destination — we have the machine that broke the Japanese Purple, we have Hitler’s Enigma, we have the machines that made the U.S. nuclear codes.”
Laura Nelson, president and chief executive officer of the National Cryptologic Foundation, highlighted the impact she hopes the museum will have as it enters a new era — one that will feature fascinating new attractions on display.
“We look forward to seeing the new exhibits and history that will be displayed for the public, as well as for the NSA workforce,” she said. “We are excited about the reopening and look forward to holding events in the new space in partnership with NSA’s museum and other programs.”
It’s a journey, Simpson pointed out, that took on a new life the moment Allenbaugh first opened the lid to one of the mysterious crates stored in the warehouse.
“Spencer spent six months up there and hand-packed everything we had in that warehouse into new boxes. He found things we had no idea we had. It all came together perfectly,” Simpson said. “We’re just kind of lucky — and the best stuff always happens by luck.”
The National Cryptologic Museum will hold a Grand Opening on October 8, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. — follow the NCM on Facebook and Twitter for more information.