On the sidewalk outside the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center in the heart of the downtown Fort Myers River District is a dual point light sculpture that bathes the Davis at night in an alphabet soup of phosphorous letters. Most people call it Caloosahatchee Manuscripts although Lux (which is Latin for light) is the name given to it by its maker, Maryland light sculptor Jim Sanborn.
Sanborn in a bright guy. MENSA bright. He’s completed more than 125 sculptural installations to date. However, his most famous work remains Kryptos, a $250,000 commission he installed outside the main entrance to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
The sculpture’s name means hidden in Greek and Sanborn duly embedded four puzzles in the curved copper panels that make up the sculpture. He and a retired CIA cryptographer by the name of Ed Scheidt (a quiet professorial individual fond of hieroglyphic patterns) spent four months devising the type of cryptogram Sanborn would implement.
“I could use methods to encrypt [the sculpture] that had an historic basis, that didn’t compromise any current methods [of cryptography used by the government]… I wanted to make something that could eventually be deciphered or extracted rather than something that will never be done, ever,” Scheidt comments. He figured that the first parts of the puzzle would take a few years to solve and the last part — maybe ten.
And within the first few years, a CIA physicist deciphered three of them using nothing more than a pen and paper. The first encryption was a poetic phrase containing an intentional misspelling that Sanborn composed. The second refers to the CIA agent who helped Sanborn with the four puzzles. And the third is a passage from archeologist Howard Carter’s account of opening the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922.)
But the fourth riddle has defied solution.
On Kryptos’ 20th anniversary in November of 2010, Sanborn became so flummoxed by the CIA’s inability to crack the code that he decided to give everyone a clue. Sanborn told The New York Times that the part of the sculpture that reads “nypvtt” becomes Berlin once decoded.
“The ‘Berlin’ clue makes a lot of sense in historical context of the Berlin Wall coming down that year,” says code cracker Elonka Dunin, a game designer who moderates the Yahoo Group and maintains a comprehensive website on Kryptos.
The Berlin Wall came tumbling down in November of 1989, almost exactly a year before the dedication of the Kryptos sculpture at CIA headquarters, and would have been on Sanborn’s mind. Dunin also points out that three slabs of the Berlin Wall sit at CIA headquarters, a gift from the German government. Although the slabs weren’t dedicated as a monument until 1992 – two years after Kryptos was installed – Dunin thinks it’s possible the CIA chose the spot for them during the time Sanborn was designing Kryptos and told him about it.
In conjunction with the new clue release, Sanborn launched a website, Kryptos Clue, to provide an automated way for people to contact him with their proposed solutions to the puzzle. Over the years, numerous people who were convinced that they’d solved the final puzzle section have contacted him. One woman even showed up at his secluded home on an island. Most of the solutions people have offered have been wildly off-base. Sanborn says that with the launch of his new site, anyone who thinks they’ve solved the last section will have to submit what they believe are the first 10 characters of the final 97 before he will respond.
If anyone does manage to solve the last cipher, that won’t end the hunt for the ultimate truth about Kryptos.
There may be more to the puzzle than what you see,” Scheidt says. “Just because you broke it doesn’t mean you have the answer.”
All of this leads one to ask: Is there a solution? Sanborn insists there is—but he would be just as happy if no one ever discovered it.
“In some ways, I’d rather die knowing it wasn’t cracked,” he says. “Once an artwork loses its mystery, it’s lost a lot.”
The whole affair kind of makes you wonder what secrets, puzzles and riddles Sanborn left for Fort Myers residents and visitors to solve when it comes to Lux.