The illuminated disks atop Adobe Systems' downtown San Jose headquarters have transmitted a secret message since 2012. On Monday, Adobe revealed that Jimmy Waters, a high school math teacher in Knoxville, Tenn., had cracked that code. The semaphore had been transmitting the audio broadcast of Neil Armstrong's historic moon landing in 1969. That's right, not the text but the actual audio.
Waters discovered the project, San Jose Semaphore, last summer while he was looking up something about Thomas Pynchon's 1966 novel, "The Crying of Lot 49." The text of that work was the code originally programmed by New York-based artist Ben Rubin in 2006. Seeing there was a new message, Waters began trying to decipher it while watching and writing down the sequences online from Tennessee.
He discovered a pattern that led him to believe it could represent a space — or a silence — in an audio file, and when he graphed the results it looked like an audio wave. He dismissed that as being too difficult but came back to it and eventually ran his results into a program that would convert his numbers to audio. The first results came back sounding like chipmunks squeaking.
So he tweaked things and found himself listening to the historic broadcast, which ends with Armstrong's famous line, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
"There was a part of me that knew I solved it, but I wondered is that really it?" Waters said. "It seemed so simple once I did that. But how could I just end up by chance getting the audio for the moon landing?"
Instead of keeping his prize for solving the puzzle, Waters is giving it to his students — who didn't know about his accomplishment before he flew out to California. Adobe is donating Creative Cloud software and two 3D printers to the school's computer lab in his name.
The San Jose Semaphore was launched in 2006 as part of the first ZERO1 art and technology festival. The four 10-foot high, bisected yellow disks of LED lights that span 70-feet of the 18th floor of Adobe's Almaden Tower don't actually spin — they're just programmed to appear that way. The disks seem to spin into different positions every few seconds, spelling out a message in semaphore, a communication method that relies on visual signals similar to flags or hand signals.
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Two scientists, Bob Mayo and Mark Snesrud, took six weeks to figure out the original message, though it took months for the disks to spell out all 800 paragraphs. Rubin — who came to San Jose to congratulate Waters on Monday — said the second message was intended to be harder to solve, but he was relieved that someone finally did it.
With hackers and WikiLeaks in the news regularly, Rubin says the topic of cryptography has entered the public consciousness as never before. And, yes, he's already at work on version 3.0, but he's not saying much about it. "I have to come up with a new idea that takes this to a new level," he said. "This time I want to make it a little bit harder and add — well, I shouldn't say anymore."