In 1990, a strange sculpture known as Kryptos appeared in the courtyard outside CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It consisted of a wavy copper screen covered with 1,732 letters, 4 question marks, and 2 spaces. These characters represent four encoded messages, one of which remains unsolved to this day. What is this famous code that’s stumped the intelligence community’s finest minds for over two decades?
What is Kryptos?
Kryptos was commissioned in 1988 and created by artist James Sanborn in 1990. It encompasses numerous sculptures. The wavy copper screen depicted above is by far the most famous of these pieces.
The screen contains four separate encoded messages, which were developed by Sanborn, and Ed Scheidt, former Chairman of the CIA Cryptographic Center. These messages combine to form a riddle within a riddle which can only be solved by one who’s physically in the courtyard (which unfortunately is closed off to civilians).
“In part of the code that’s been deciphered, I refer to an act that took place when I was at the agency and a location that’s on the ground of the agency. So in order to find that place, you have to decipher the piece and then go to the agency and find that place.” ~ James Sanborn
To date, three of the four messages have been cracked. Details are below:
Kryptos Message #1: K1
- Notes: This is a modified Vigenère cipher where the alphabet key is “kryptos” and the passphrase is “palimpsest” (using this transcript, you can solve it yourself here). Some think the strange and deliberate misspelling at the end (iqlusion) might be a clue to K4.
- Decoded Message: “Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion.”
Kryptos Message #2: K2
- Notes: Same as above but with a passphrase of “abscissa.” On April 19, 2006, Sanborn announced this particular section contained an error. The corrected version is given below. It appears to point to something being buried and the coordinates point to a location 150 feet southeast of the sculpture. Also, there is another strange misspelling – “undergruund.”
- Decoded Message: “It was totally invisible. How’s that possible? They used the earth’s magnetic field. x The information was gathered and transmitted undergruund to an unknown location. x Does Langley know about this? They should: it’s buried out there somewhere. x Who knows the exact location? Only WW. This was his last message: x Thirty-eight degrees fifty-seven minutes six point five seconds North, seventy-seven degrees eight minutes forty-four seconds West. X Layer two.”
Kryptos Message #3: K3
- Notes: This section uses a far more complicated coding technique, namely transposition. The text appears to describe Howard Carter’s opening of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. The question at the end was asked by Lord Carnarvon. Depending on the source, Carter answered with either “Wonderful things” or “Yes, it is wonderful.” There is yet another misspelling (“desparatly”) and the last sentence contains a strangely-placed “q.”
- Decoded Message: “Slowly, desparatly slowly, the remains of passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway was removed. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. And then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in. The hot air escaping from the chamber caused the flame to flicker, but presently details of the room within emerged from the mist. x Can you see anything q?”
Kryptos Message #4: K4
- Notes: This section, which consists of 97 characters, remains unsolved. The correct solution requires that the first three sections be properly decoded. Sanborn has hinted that “the plaintext itself is not standard English and would require a second level of cryptanalysis.” Other possible clues include the various misspellings as well as other nearby sculptures, some of which display messages in Morse code while another one depicts a compass rose. In November 2010, Sanborn revealed to the New York Times that when “NYPVTT” is deciphered, it reads “Berlin.”
- Encoded Message: OBKR UOXOGHULBSOLIFBBWFLRVQQPRNGKSSO TWTQSJQSSEKZZWATJKLUDIAWINFBNYP VTTMZFPKWGDKZXTJCDIGKUHUAUEKCAR
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Kryptos is one of the most famous unsolved codes in history. It even played a role in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. Go ahead and give it a shot…if you come up with an answer, you can submit it via Sanborn’s website. But be warned…the cipher has caused more than its fair share of sleepless nights.
Experts and amateurs alike have wrestled with the code of Kryptos for more than twenty years. Eventually, someone will crack K4. But don’t forget the coordinates in K2 and Sanborn’s comments about being physically within the courtyard. For all we know, the answer to K4 might not end the mystery of this strange encrypted sculpture…it might be the beginning of a whole new one.