Claude Shannon

On this date in 1916, Claude Elwood Shannon was born in Petoskey, Mich. He grew up in Gaylord, Mich., where he attended the local public schools and showed a talent for both mathematics and engineering. He received a Bachelor of Science in mathematics and electrical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1936, then went on to MIT for graduate studies. While working with a mechanical computer, called the Differential Analyzer, Shannon came up with the idea for a computer in which numbers would be represented by states of electrical circuits rather than ratios of gears. He published this work in a master's thesis which outlined the use of Boolean logic and binary numbers in a digital computer. He then earned his Ph.D. in mathematics, graduating in 1940. In 1948, he published a paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which is regarded as the foundation of information theory, in which he defined the bit and discussed the mathematics of communication problems. At that time, Shannon was attached to Bell Labs, which had just developed the transistor, a technology that greatly improved the viability of the electronic computer. Starting in the 1950s, technological advances which depended on Shannon's work were changing the world on a regular basis. Shannon's later interests included artificial intelligence, card-counting, finance, and juggling (the subject of his last published paper). In the 1950s, he also devised a program for a chess-playing computer. Although Shannon survived into the digital age, he was unaware of most of the developments in information theory which took place in the 1990s. He suffered from Alzheimer’s for many years, and by 1993, had been committed to a nursing home. D. 2001.

Photo by Konrad Jacobs under CC 2.0

“Shannon described himself as an atheist and was outwardly apolitical.”

—William Poundstone, Fortune's Formula (2005)

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

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