San José Semaphore – Artist’s Statement

The San José Semaphore pays homage to a century-old local landmark

Called the San José Electric Light Tower, the landmark was erected at the intersection of Santa Clara and Market Streets in 1881 by local businessman J. J. Owen to illuminate downtown San José. The light tower remained a beloved presence above downtown San José until it blew down in a 1915 windstorm.

San José Semaphore also connects contemporary digital systems with the earliest practical telecommunications network: the Chappe semaphore telegraph developed in France in the late 18th century. The Chappe system employed a visual code created by the Chappe brothers that used wooden panels, moved manually by ropes and pulleys, to transmit messages between relay towers 5-6 miles apart.

Modern digital communications use coding systems that trace their lineage back to this earliest system of “high-speed” data transmission. Morse code, binary ascii character representations, and ultimately Adobe’s PostScript all represent evolutionary leaps from Claude Chappe’s original code.

Like the Semaphore Telegraphs of the 18th century, the San José Semaphore is a machine for communication. Each wheel of the San José Semaphore can assume four distinct positions: vertical, horizontal, and left- and right-leaning diagonal; together the four wheels have a vocabulary of 256 possible combinations. The San José Semaphore transmits its message at a steady rate; its four wheels turn to new positions every 7.2 seconds.

As of October 2012, a brand-new message is being transmitted. The content of the San José Semaphore’s message is a mystery; cracking the encryption technique and deciphering the message is posed as a challenge for the public. To the first person or group to successfully crack the code, Adobe will award bragging rights and acknowledgment on both the Adobe website and the San José Semaphore website.

For more information about the competition, view Crack the Code.