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.