Claude Elwood Shannon (1916 – 2001)

Claude Elwood Shannon, an American mathematical engineer, is considered as “Father of the Information Age”. Whilst studying the Boolean language, he discovered that electrical circuits can be constructed to transmit information without any loss in quality or degradation due to amplification stages such as in Analogue circuits. He was also involved in the creation of integrated circuits, Cryptography, Computers, and Artificial Intelligence.
Shannon was born on April 30, 1916 in the small town of Gaylord Michigan, his father was a probate judge and his mother the principal of the local high school. During his youth his mentor was Thomas Edison whom later he found out that he was a distant relative. During college he studied mathematics and electrical engineering and his primary passion was radio and model airplanes. He also built a telegraph system for a friend during his college period.

The University of Michigan

He graduated in 1936 from the University of Michigan with two bachelor’s degrees and continued his graduated studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where in 1937 with his thesis “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits” and later published in 1938. It demonstrated that with Boolean algebra and relays, electronic circuits could be constructed to resolve logical and numerical calculations. This was the foundation of digital circuits and logical computer circuitry. In 1940 the thesis awarded Shannon “The Alfred Nobel American Institute of American Engineers Award” Howard Gardner of Harvard University. His thesis was described as “Possibly the most important, and also the most famous, master’s thesis of the century.”
After he applied to an ad that MIT submitted, to work on a differential analyzer, an early Analogue computer, he joined Vannevar Bush team, but he left MIT in 1940 to teach at Princeton and the following year he joined Bell Electronics in the Research department. During the war at Bell research he worked on Anti-Aircraft devices that could calculate and target enemy planes or Rockets such as German V1 and V2 Rockets that hit England in 1942, and on data transmission encryption that was used between Churchill and Roosevelt during their transatlantic communications between the two leaders. Later in the 40’s Shannon wrote “Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems” which is the fundamental of modern cryptography.

Claude Shannon at Bell Labs

After the war Shannon focused on how Telephone systems could use Binary values to improve communications and network. In the late 40’s analogue amplifiers were used for long distant calls which degrades the sound quality due to the fact that the noise was also amplified. While others tried to find a better way using analogue circuits, Shannon’s work focused on the digital world and in 1948 he wrote “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” which theoretically explained how digital communication was possible. The article was published in the bell system technical research circles and was a success for Shannon’s carrier as it revolutionized the way how engineers thought about communications. The Papers that Shannon wrote, lead Bell technology in developing the first regenerative repeater, the first rudimentary analogue to digital converter. Shannon, in his papers, also explained the factor of Bandwidth or known as the Shannon limit or Shannon Capacity, and bits of information can be compressed or loss of bits could be recovered with an algorithm which this theory is today used in JPEGs, MPEG, and MP3’s over the Internet.
In 1949 he married Mary Elizabeth Moore, by that time Shannon was an academic celebrity. In the Scientific American of January 1990, more than 40 years after, in an article, his papers were considered as the Magna Carta of the Information Age. The same year that he married Mary Elizabeth he built the first rudimentary computer chess and the following year he wrote a paper on how programming the machines and on how to play chess, including algorithms that are still in use today. He also ventured in the Artificial Intelligence field where he built a maze and an electrical mouse which was capable of solving and memorizing the maze.

Shannon and his electro mechanical mouse Theseus.

In 1956 Shannon left Bell and went back to MIT to teach. In 1973 “The information Theory Society” now known as the “Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers” (IEEE) instituted an annual Shannon lecture that evolved into the Shannon award. Since Shannon was out of Information Theory for more than 10 years, he felt that people expected a lot from him and that he did not have anything significant to say, but his speech showed that Shannon was still ahead of his time. In 1978 he retired from MIT and his last interview was in 1989 on the Omni Magazine. He never won a Nobel Prize, but he was awarded the Kyoto prize in 1985, a Japanese award similar to the Nobel Prize. In February 24th 2001 at the age of 84 Shannon lost his battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Shannon with his theories gave us the key to the digital world we live today, and put us 20 years ahead. Maybe someone else could have come up with his theory but at the time Analogue circuits were dominant and his out of the box mentality gave us the most important theory of the 20th century and changed our lives completely.