Tennessee Teacher Cracks Adobe’s Semaphore Code

The secret code transmitted by the San Jose Semaphore has had mathematicians and puzzle fans stumped for over four-and-a-half years, but Jimmy Waters, a high school math teacher from Knoxville, Tennessee, just solved the mystery. The SJ Semaphore’s hidden message was one of the most famous broadcasts of all time — Neil Armstrong’s first words as he walked on the moon.

The SJ Semaphore is a public art project, and an open challenge to science, math and art lovers everywhere—it’s a visual code comprised of four illuminated discs atop Adobe’s Headquarters. Each disc has four possible positions, and every 7.2 seconds they align in a new configuration, communicating an encrypted message. The code is also broadcast online, along with audio clues.

Cracking the Code

Jimmy first heard about the SJ Semaphore while reading Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49.” The full text of that book happened to be the very first encrypted message transmitted by the SJ Semaphore. In a lucky twist of fate, Jimmy stumbled upon the Semaphore and its new, unsolved code during an online search about Pynchon,. As a confessed logic-puzzle addict with the summer off from teaching, his mission was clear: “I wanted to understand how it was encrypted, and I wanted to take on a puzzle that’s been projected across a city and over the Internet for years without being solved.” It took him about a month to crack it.

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.

As a math teacher, Jimmy didn’t just embrace the Semaphore’s challenge, he related to the joy of the puzzle maker: “The most fun I have as a teacher is when I throw really tough problems at students and just watch what happens. I love to watch that creative struggle and the euphoria when they discover the solution. I’m suspicious that Ben Rubin [the project’s designer] experiences something similar seeing people trying to crack his Semaphore codes.”

The Not-So-Secret Story Behind the SJ 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.

A Prize, and Another Mystery on the Horizon

The prize for solving the SJ Semaphore includes some pretty amazing bragging rights and a one-year subscription to Creative Cloud. Jimmy wanted his students to share his prize, so he requested to donate his subscription to Powell High School where he teaches. We decided to sweeten the deal with 40 one-year Creative Cloud subscriptions and a 3D printer to help the students push the boundaries of creativity even further.

Never heard of the SJ Semaphore until now? No worries – a new code will be up later this summer: “The Semaphore is intriguing to people — they’re captivated by those mysterious spinning dials,” says Siri Lackovic, Adobe senior brand strategist. “And we can’t wait for Ben to begin broadcasting a new challenge. The only thing I can reveal is that, with the next code, there will be new twists and surprises. Will it be another four-and-a-half years before someone solves it? That’s something no one knows.”

If we’ve piqued your code-cracking curiosity, read more about the history and vision behind the SJ Semaphore, find out how a dynamic duo decrypted the first code in 2006, and check out this list of longstanding unsolved codes.