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In a Duke Lab, a Spy's Tools of the Trade

Nick Gessler's collection of encryption devices is a walk through the history of spycraft

An early encryption device made in the late 1600s by Nicholas Bion, who built devices for France's King Louis XIV. Photo courtesy of Nick Gessler.
An early encryption device made in the late 1600s by Nicholas Bion, who built devices for France's King Louis XIV. Photo courtesy of Nick Gessler.

It's not like Nick Gessler went looking specifically for a French encryption device from the late 1600s made by a guy who worked for King Louis XIV.

But by punching a bunch of arcane search terms into eBay one day several years ago, the Duke professor suddenly found himself in a bidding war for this unfathomably rare cipher disk, offered up from a customer of an antique shop in southern France.

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Gessler won that auction for a silver disk that looks like a fancier version of a decoder gizmo you might get in a cereal box. Gessler has never seen another like it but knows it was made by Nicolas Bion, an instrument maker for the French King in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

For Gessler, this centuries-old device is both a coveted collectible and a valuable research and teaching tool. He uses it -- along with the roughly 50 other code-breaking devices and tools of the spy trade he has obtained in his travels -- in his Duke classes on computing and espionage. From time to time they are on display in his lab in Smith Warehouse.

Known formally as the Media Arts + Sciences Complex Systems Lab, Gessler's workspace looks more like an electronics junkyard at first glance, old equipment piled high, wires poking out everywhere. A closer inspection reveals an intellectual curiosity shop, one conversation piece after another on tables, hidden in drawers and jammed onto overflowing shelves. These oddities are the result of Gessler's four decades of curious pursuits, a path that has taken him from a career in archaeology to museum curatorships to academic appointments at UCLA and, now, Duke, where he has worked since 2008.

It's a remarkable collection. A Cold War-era code-making machine here. A pile of meteorites there. In a drawer, a once-classified government manual mapping out the Normandy Invasion.

 And tucked into the back corner of the room is the top of a massive Jacquard loom -- an 19th century mechanical textile manufacturing machine that used punch cards to create intricately woven complex patterns.

This loom's mechanism is a precursor to the modern computer, which is why Gessler tracked it down in a mill in New Jersey many years ago and convinced the owner to part with it.

"He shipped it to me for free, basically because I was interested," Gessler said. "It's a technology that has mostly come and gone. But I like my students, even though they have a personal computer on their desk, to understand that theirs isn't the be-all and end-all of computing devices."

For decades, Gessler has used all manner of strategy to hunt these treasures, from online auctions to swap meets to relationships with scrap dealers. (The haphazard pile of robotic computer units propped against the back wall proves you can find pretty much anything in a scrap metal yard.)

EBay, of course, has proven a gold mine. It was through an online auction that Gessler acquired a collection of slot machine reels -- essentially the bare-bones guts of the one-armed bandits ubiquitous in Las Vegas and other gambling meccas. Each reel is a modest, plastic wheel affixed to a programmable motor complete with sensors, a circuit board and some wires. Gessler encourages his students to write programs to operate these reels. He could teach this programming skill in other ways, but using a slot machine's innards gives the assignment a little extra zing.

"This is a real thing in the real world," Gessler said of the reels. "You learn something about entertainment, you learn something about artificiality, you learn something about human behavior and you learn something about robotics."

Collectively, Gessler likes to call these devices and computer equipment "Things That Think," a term that helps explain his intellectual itch. Early computing equipment and code-making devices from decades past are beautiful in their simplicity. You can pop them open and clearly see how they operate.

"Nick likes artifacts from a time when you could completely understand how they work," said his wife, Katherine Hayles, a Duke professor who teaches with Gessler in Duke's Information Science + Information Studies program. "He has a truly encyclopedic competence in technologies and he likes to understand things from the ground up."

Gessler, 68, enjoys unearthing gems and rescuing them from sellers who may not know what they have. He once discovered, in a Las Vegas pawn shop, a special typewriter -- the Underwood Code Machine -- used by the American Navy during the 1920s to decode Japanese messages. Gessler paid $40 for it, one of three known devices. The other two are in museums.

"Forty dollars isn't unreasonable for an old typewriter," Hayles said. "But this happened to be a very special typewriter."

It's not by accident that Gessler's lab has the feel of a museum. As a child, Gessler lived among artifacts his parents acquired while living in Peru. Later in life, Gessler served as the curator of two museums in British Columbia, and he is a frequent visitor to museums and conferences offered by professional organizations and government agencies.

The lab is in perpetual flux as Gessler shuttles artifacts in and out to suit the courses he teaches. Meteorites of myriad shapes, sizes and stages of oxidation cover several tables, most tagged with codes explaining where they originated and were found. (Gessler teaches a meteorites class. He unearthed many during his time on the West Coast when he'd take his son and daughter along on scavenger hunts in the desert).

And then there's his collection of old computers. If you look behind a pile of cleaning supplies on two shelves in the middle of his lab, you'll find an armful of the first commercially available personal computers. The Wang 500, the IBM 5100 and the Tektronix 4051 all hit the market around the same time in the mid-1970s, big, blocky and beige. Gessler paid dearly for his first Tektronix, but grabbed many of the others since then for under $100 at surplus sales.

"You can't get them that cheap anymore," he said, pointing to the Tektronix machine, 
"and they don't write manuals that good anymore either. It's a beautiful machine. It came with 16K memory. I think you could upgrade it to 64."

Below: The sights and sounds of Gessler's cryptographic device collection in 15 seconds.