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New Clue Revealed for a Sculpture of Secret Code at CIA Headquarters

James Sanborn, "Kryptos" (1991), installed in the CIA courtyard (photograph courtesy Jim Sanborn, via Wikimedia)
James Sanborn, “Kryptos” (1991), installed in the CIA courtyard (photograph by Jim Sanborn, via Wikimedia)

A secret message encoded in a sculpture at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, got one step closer to being solved last week. Creator Jim Sanborn disclosed one of the words in “Kryptos,” a brain-racking puzzle that’s gone unsolved for nearly a quarter of a century right at the doorstep of America’s intelligence center.

“Clock” is the hint, one of the words covertly nestled in the 97 characters of the unsolved code. As the New York Times noted, this joins “Berlin” which Sanborn revealed in 2010, possibly referencing the curious “Berlin clock,” or Mengenlehreuhr, a 1975 German timepiece designed by Dieter Binninger that tells the hour by illuminated colors in a system derived from set theory. Sanborn reportedly coyly replied to the theory, “sounding pleased”: “There are several really interesting clocks in Berlin.”

Now before you dust off your enigma machines and put on a pot of conspiracy-strength coffee, the “Kryptos” sculpture, which made its debut in November of 1990, has already driven some of the greatest codebreakers to obsession, along with a host of ambitious amateurs. The first three messages were solved early on by NSA cryptanalysts (here’s a detailed breakdown of each), through a Vigenère cipher, one of the crytographic systems to come out of the Renaissance. However, the shortest message in the nearly 1,800 letters pocked in the copper sculpture, waving out from a trunk of petrified wood like a missive from a prayer scroll, has proved the most difficult.

According to Wired, other than Sanborn, only two other people were thought to know the solution, but in fact Sanborn disclosed in 2005 that he hadn’t given them the real messages at all. While the artist has several other coded sculptures, including those installed at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “Kryptos” remains the most frustrating. The clue happens to coincide with the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which occurred while he was working on the piece. Since the November timing of the sculpture’s installation proved to have bearing on previously solved messages, perhaps there’s meaning in the new hint beyond Sanborn’s impatience for its solution.

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