San Jose Semaphore Cracked! It’s A Message From the Moon

Jimmy Waters, who teaches high school math in Knoxville, Tennessee, has cracked the second coded message broadcast by "San Jose Semaphore."

Jimmy Waters, who teaches high school math in Knoxville, Tennessee, has cracked the second coded message broadcast by "San Jose Semaphore." (Photo: Courtesy of Alexa Rickard)

Jimmy Waters teaches high school math in Knoxville, Tennessee. Over the summer, he started reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

As it happens, the novel was also the source of the secret message encoded in the very first ‘San Jose Semaphore,’ a media installation project on one of Adobe’s towers in downtown San Jose.


When Waters googled the book title, he stumbled upon the San Jose Semaphore. And then he saw that a second code was put up on the building — a code that hadn’t been cracked in four years.

Most people would be too intimidated to attempt the puzzle. After all, it hasn’t been cracked in four years. Not Waters. “I figured that anyone who’d tried to crack it had given up a long time ago. And I felt like I probably didn’t have any competition, so it was all mine to solve at my own pace.”

Each disc as a digit

So Waters spent some time on the website set up by Adobe to explain the semaphore — and how it was cracked the first time, within a month of installation, by Bob Mayo and Mark Snesrud, two scientists who were in town for a conference. They spotted the semaphore and became obsessed. They wrote an entire scientific paper explaining how they broke the code.

Waters read their paper, “and I tried to recreate what they had done on my computer.” You know, as you do. “I started turning the data into numbers, using each disc as a digit, and I kind of played around with graphing that.”

‘This kind of looks like audio’

RS24599_Adobe-Wave-Form-qut

Then it struck him. “When I graphed it, it kind of looked like those waves that you get for an audio file.” He was expecting text, like the first message, from The Crying of Lot 40. But “the frequency was off at first, so they sounded like chipmunks,” says Waters.

“I couldn’t understand what they said, but I could tell that there were voices.” Waters had the audio running 5.5 times faster than normal. Once he slowed down the message, it all made sense…

Waters discovered that the semaphore, created by New York artist Ben Rubin, was a sizable stretch of audio from Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing in 1969. Namely, the quote that almost everyone has memorized: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

“I thought it was neat that it was something that was so instantly recognizable,” says Waters.

“I love that Jimmy was able to make the leap to imagine that it might be audio,” says Rubin. “Because that was what was hard this time.”

The San Jose Semaphore seen from street level.
The San Jose Semaphore seen from street level. (Photo: Courtesy of Alexa Rickard)

For decoding the San Jose Semaphore, Waters got a free flight to San Jose and bragging rights. Also, Adobe is donating their Creative Cloud software to two computer labs at Waters’ high school, along with a 3D printer.

Does Waters think his students could crack this code? Sure enough: “I think it’s something you could explain, the process,” he says, confidently.

What’s Next? San Jose Semaphore 3.0

Rubin was a little dismayed when the first code was cracked in less than two months. But from the time he discovered it existed, it took Waters only about a month to crack the second. Is Rubin going to put up a third? “Absolutely. I don’t know what yet. Something that I hope will be a little bit harder.”

For inspiration, Rubin says he likes to imagine “what the SETI scientists are always hoping for; something that actually looks like communication.”

Perhaps it goes without saying you don’t have to be from the United States to submit a qualifying solution. You don’t even have to be from Planet Earth.

“Arrival,” the 2016 movie based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” features Amy Adams as an ace linguist trying to decode an alien language. Could Ben Rubin come up with a challenge compelling enough for aliens to decode?
“Arrival,” the 2016 movie based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” features Amy Adams as an ace linguist trying to decode an alien language. Could Ben Rubin come up with a challenge compelling enough for aliens to decode? (Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

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Author

Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED's South Bay arts reporter, covering arts and culture in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She also guest hosts for  The California Report and Forum, files stories for NPR and hosts a podcast called Love in the Digital Age.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the past 20 years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
Follow @rachaelmyrow

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