what is this NSA symbol?
June 6, 2014 2:26 PM   Subscribe

What is this NSA logo called/what does it mean/what does it represent?

Searching for NSA images obviously brings up a million images that are not this one. It's on my father's headstone. He worked at NSA from the early 1960s until his death in 1987. We lived in Frankfurt 1969-72 and he traveled extensively throughout my childhood. I know nothing about what he did. I would like to know about this symbol/logo and what it represents.
posted by headnsouth to Law & Government (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A key and lightning bolt has been used by military intelligence branches. Often times used to represent electronic security.
posted by 2manyusernames at 2:46 PM on June 6, 2014

I don't know what the logo is called, but this page on US military heraldry says that the lightning bolt signifies communications and the key is a symbol for authority, secrecy and wardenship. At the risk of you calling me Captain Obvious maybe he was in signals intelligence or cryptography.
posted by Rob Rockets at 2:49 PM on June 6, 2014

The key appears in the current seal of the NSA and all three elements—key, lightning bolt, and chain links—appear in the previous 1963-1966 seal.
posted by XMLicious at 2:52 PM on June 6, 2014

The key and lightning bolt (which Rob Rockets covers) have been part of the NSA logo since 1963. Together they've always implied encrypted (or decrypted) communications. Considering the time, and the location, I'd imagine your father was a cold warrior of the first water. More than that is guesswork.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:56 PM on June 6, 2014

My assumption having known him was that cryptography was his starting point. I knew that the elements appear in various forms elsewhere but I have been unable to find this particular design/version anywhere, and it's so specific and detailed.
posted by headnsouth at 3:15 PM on June 6, 2014

Maybe give the The Center for Cryptologic History at Fort Meade a call.
posted by Rob Rockets at 3:27 PM on June 6, 2014

You might ping @trevorpaglen, who studies and writes about the symbology of classified programs.
posted by jjwiseman at 3:34 PM on June 6, 2014

Send a copy of the picture to the Pentagon's Institute of Heraldry with the question. I think there is a reasonable chance you'll hear something back.

posted by pseudonick at 6:39 PM on June 6, 2014

I hit a wall with Paglen so am pursuing the Fort Meade & Pentagon options. Thanks for the suggestions, I will update if I learn anything.
posted by headnsouth at 8:47 AM on June 12, 2014

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