When Jim Sanborn unveiled his multimedia Kryptos sculpture in front of the CIA building in 1991, it attracted considerable media attention. In the United States, most of that attention centered on two annoying early-90s media clichés (“Gee, this thing the government purchased sure is expensive” and “Gee, this piece of contemporary art sure is abstract”)—but some of that coverage dug a little deeper to ask what the code in the sculpture actually meant, a much more interesting question but one that met with decidedly limited success.
In 1999, cryptographer and chess programmer Chris Gillogly publicly announced that he had decoded nearly all of the encrypted text on the front of the monument, which reads as follows:
BETWEEN SUBTLE SHADING AND THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT LIES THE NUANCE OF ILLUSION
IT WAS TOTALLY INVISIBLE HOWS THAT POSSIBLE ? THEY USED THE EARTHS MAGNETIC FIELD X THE INFORMATION WAS GATHERED AND TRANSMITTED UNDERGROUND TO AN UNKNOWN LOCATION X DOES LANGLEY KNOW ABOUT THIS ? THEY SHOULD ITS 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
SLOWLY DEDESPERATELY 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 ?
There remains a shorter fourth section on the larger part of the monument. Sanborn has recently given cryptographers an important clue——that the text includes the phrase “BERLIN CLOCK”——and this may suggest that the unusual design of the Berlin clock may in some way resemble the particular sequence involved in section 4’s encryption, though the question of why an encrypted phrase would provide a hint as to its own decryption is a fair one.
If you’d like to take a crack at section 4 yourself, be sure to look at Gillogly’s notes on the first three sections and check out the Kryptos: Beyond K4 blog for the latest on the Kryptos fan community’s efforts to translate the rest of the sculpture.