Was Alan Turing the Father of Hip Hop?

binary-code-63529_1280The tragic story of brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing has been popularized in the award-winning 2014 film, The Imitation Game and recent books by Walter Isaacson and Steven Johnson. Turing’s work cracking the Enigma code, and developing the technology that would become modern computing has become part of the popular lexicon. Less well known is his work with “pulse code modulation”, the predecessor to today’s digital audio technology.

In 1941, as the United States entered the war in the Pacific, General George Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff faced a difficult challenge. He suspected that the encryption system used for military communications, the A-3 Scrambler developed by AT&T in the 1920s, was not secure. In fact, in the fall of 1941 the Deutsche Reichspost, tasked with handling telephone and telegraph traffic, had broken the A-3.

Enter The Green Hornet…

In the early 1940s, Bell Laboratories, under the direction of A.B. Clark and assisted by Turing, began work on what became known as “The Green Hornet”. The name was derived from the soundtrack of a popular serial radio show as eavesdroppers could only hear a buzzing noise. The system, whose official moniker became SIGSALY, digitally sampled speech, converting it into binary code. Consisting of 40 racks of gear, weighing 50 tons, SIGSALY successfully encrypted communications throughout the Second World War, mostly famously between Washington and London.

As with the development of the Internet decades later, military research broke technological ground, creating innovations that reach far beyond their original applications. While it may seem a stretch to connect Alan Turing and Kanye West, the world would not have seen the E-mu SP-12, or Pro Tools without the groundbreaking teamwork that developed SIGSALY.

Now what you hear is not a test…

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