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0 Claude Shannon

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  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 30-04-2016
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I was pleased to see that Google chose on Saturday 30 April to celebrate the birth of Claude Shannon, one of the forgotten geniuses of the age of the computer. His name was unknown to me until I studied the history of the personal computer for my book Eureka: how invention happens (Yale 2015). I had been writing about another genius from an earlier era, George Boole, inventor of "Boolean logic" when I discovered that it was Shannon who had made practical use of this to create the digital age. This is what I had to say about him: 

"It was a young American who realised that Boolean algebra could be used to process information electronically. Claude Shannon's thesis, written in 1937, had the unexciting title A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits but came to be regarded as the most influential paper of twentieth-century electronics. As with so much innovation at the time, it was a proposal for solving some serious problems with the telephone networks, which were becoming overloaded. Working for Bell Labs, Shannon used Boolean logic to devise a way of sending information in the form of pulses rather than waves. His revelation had come about because he had, most unusually, taken courses in both logic and electronics. 
In his history of the microprocessor, The Chip : How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution, T.R. Reid says of Shannon: 'If society allocated fame and fortune on the basis of intellectual merit, Claude Shannon would have been as rich and famous as any rock idol or football star.' Shannon was born in the small town of Gaylord , Michigan in 1916; his father was a judge and businessman and his mother the principal of the high school. He studied electrical engineering and mathematics at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1936. From there he went to MIT, where he had the opportunity to work with Vannevar Bush on a computer rather like a semi-electronic version of Babbage's Differential Engine. Shannon became intrigued by the work of the relays and wrote his thesis on A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits; in it he drew on the logic of George Boole. This work alone, which he completed when he was twenty-two, would have been sufficient to gain him a prominent place in the history of electronics for it showed how Boolean symbolic logic could be used to analyse complex systems such as the switching systems of a telephone exchange. 

Later, working at Bell Labs, he went on to propose a theory of communication in which all electronic information could be reduced to a common unit represented as a 1 or 0, what he called a "binary digit" soon shorted to "bit". This became the measure of a computer's memory: more bits, more memory. Though he did little to popularise his work, which is perhaps why he is not well known to the public (like a number of other prominent engineers he has no entry in the American Dictionary of Biography), Shannon is regarded as 'the father of the digital age'. He died aged eighty-four in 2001 after suffering from Alzheimer's for a number of years. His obituary in the London Times captured something of his eccentric character under the heading 'Playful genius who invented the bit, separated the medium from the message and laid the foundations for all digital communications'. [ex] To colleagues in the corridors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who used to warn each other about the unsteady advance of Shannon on his unicycle, it may have seemed improbable that he could remain serious for long enough to do any important work. Yet the unicycle was characteristic of his quirky thought processes, and became a topsy-turvy symbol of unorthodox progress towards unexpected theoretical insights …. 

Like Charles Babbage, Shannon was known by his contemporaries as 'the Irascible Genius'. When he returned to MIT in 1958, he continued to threaten corridor-walkers on his unicycle, sometimes augmenting the hazard by juggling. No one was ever sure whether these activities were part of some new breakthrough or whether he just found them amusing. He worked, for example, on a motorised pogo-stick, which he claimed would mean he could abandon the unicycle so feared by his colleagues …."

It was Shannon's revolutionary information theory that provided the logic for the digital age.