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Adobe’s semaphore code cracked after nearly five years

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”

Semaphore atop Adobe’s San Jose headquarters.
Semaphore atop Adobe’s San Jose headquarters.
Photo via Adobe News

For over four-and-a-half years, the semaphore code atop Adobe’s headquarters in San Jose had the world’s geek sect stumped. Well, it’s finally been solved care of a high school math teacher from Knoxville, Tennessee.

The revolving four circles are signal for Neil Armstrong’s famous lunar (or Culver City movie studio, if you really want to go there) quip, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Not terribly inclusive of a message, but there you have it.

According to Adobe, here’s how Jimmy Waters cracked the code.

First, Jimmy pulled up the SJ Semaphore’s online transmission and began copying the positions of the discs by hand, just to get the feel for it. Then he figured out how to gather and parse the data from the website, and hacked together some scripts to pull data every couple of minutes. He assigned number values to the discs and graphed his findings. At first he was looking for written words, but the graphs started to look a little like audio.

That was the biggest leap: “It didn’t feel like a breakthrough at the time. It was more of a ‘Well, nothing else is working, so why not?’” Then, using a program to examine .wav files, he began to hear the transmission.

“I knew what the recording was as soon as I heard the first clip of the decrypted audio. I’m sure I’ve heard the recording before, but I couldn’t have told you anything Neil Armstrong said other than the ‘One small step…’ part. That wasn’t the part I’d decrypted, but something about the voice or the quality of the recording was instantly recognizable to me,” Jimmy muses.

For his problem-solving skills, Waters received a one-year subscription to Creative Cloud by Adobe, which he donated to his school.

This isn’t the first message Adobe’s semaphore code has signaled. After completion in 2006, the full text of Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel “The Crying of Lot 49” was the very first encrypted message transmitted by the semaphore. (Which is so very Silicon Valley.)

A little bit of background on the semaphore.

The SJ Semaphore debuted in 2006. We had just opened our new Almaden Tower building, and the art-project-meets-puzzle was one way to integrate public art into the design. We chose renowned media artist Ben Rubin to create the piece, knowing he would draw on Adobe’s roots in tech and art to produce a unique experience for viewers around the world.

“The Semaphore came from a desire to make the mechanisms of digital communication visible to the naked eye,” says Ben. “As a piece of public art, I wanted the Semaphore to look graceful and well composed, but also mysteriously purposeful, evoking curiosity or fascination. Even if you have no idea what it is or what it’s doing, I hope the Semaphore suggests, just from the way it looks, that it is trying to communicate.”

While the mysterious Semaphore projects a futuristic, high-tech image, Ben was also drawing on some of the oldest of artistic traditions to create it. As he explains, “Historically, art and technology have never really been separated; from Pythagoras through da Vinci, from Robert Rauschenberg to Olafur Eliasson, there is an unbroken chain of artists deeply engaged with the latest science and technology of their respective times. In fact, it’s really only in the last couple of centuries that we’ve started to think of art and technology as separate.” In the Semaphore, these pieces come back together.