The making and breaking of codes and ciphers has been a source of deep interest to people for thousands of years. Cryptography may serve as an amusement for some, while the desire to secure private information in a digital age is a matter of earnest attention by researchers, business and governments alike.
On 14 July 1897, English composer Edward Elgar sent a short coded message to a family friend Dora Penny. The strange squiggles (87 in all) often called the Dorabella code, made no sense to Dora and she never received a solution from Elgar himself. Despite significant efforts by many people, no satisfactory solution has yet been offered. This is not the only code that has resisted all attempts to unlock the meaning held within.
A sculpture by American artist Jim Sanborn entitled Kryptos was installed in the grounds of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia in 1990. It contains four panels of differently encoded text. Through the work of several thousand amateur and professional code breakers, including the staff of the CIA, three of the four panels have been decoded. The last panel remains silent.
The public’s interest in codes and their central importance to national security has seen some agencies around the world using public code challenges as a way to attract and recruit skilled staff.
NKRYPT is Questacon’s contribution to the area of cryptography. It joins other outdoor sculptural exhibits in the area around Questacon, providing engagement and stimulation for visitors and passersby. NKRYPT is a puzzle to be solved. It contains many separate codes and ciphers, laser cut into eight stainless steel poles. The challenges are all discrete but interlinked, and solving one may provide a clue to solving others. Some are intended to be quickly broken, others are more challenging. Decoding a message may reveal a further puzzle to be solved. The final code will open with a key that will emerge from the solution of all the other codes.
NKRYPT contains a special code related to the 2013 Centenary of Canberra. This code was first decrypted in December 2013 by Melbourne-based engineer, Glenn McIntosh, who won a Q Club membership and a hot air balloon ride for his achievement. The Centenary Code symbols can be decoded into a series of numbers that represent GPS coordinates. These are interpreted to reveal the names of ten Canberra suburbs named after scientists and innovators (such as Farrer and Florey), or that have connections to Questacon (Ainslie, Parkes and Deakin).
Whilst the Centenary Code Challenge has been solved, there are still many puzzles to be solved in NKRYPT. To date only about one-fifth of NKRYPT’s codes have been deciphered, and not all of the mysteries revealed in these decoded messages have been solved.