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Claude Shannon

April 28, 2016

I was interested in electronics and physics from a very early age, but I studied physics instead of electrical engineering as an undergraduate. I was advised by an electrical engineer that not only did physicists have more fun, but they were also better paid.

I was further justified in my career choice when I saw my engineering friends surveying our college campus on a very cold day. They were doing an exercise in a course in civil engineering. Many of them had enrolled in that course to have a fall-back career should their other engineering aspirations falter. When I paid for a survey of my house lot many years later, I saw the logic in their choice.

I was reminded of my surveying friends when I read the biography of Vannevar Bush, "The Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century," by G. Pascal Zachary.[1] Bush was a preeminent engineer of the early 20th century who wrote two important essays. The first, "Science, The Endless Frontier," helped to establish the National Science Foundation.[2]

In the second, "
As We May Think," published in The Atlantic Monthly, Bush presented the idea of an information appliance called Memex.[3] Although his system was conceived long before the advent of ubiquitous computing and the Internet, it's fair to say that we are now living in a Memex world. I wrote about Bush in an earlier article (Basic Research, October 22, 2010).

Bush's first invention, which he called a "Profile Tracer," was a means to automate surveying.[4] As his patent specification states,
"This invention relates to an instrument adapted to be used in surveying for drawing a line upon a record sheet representing the elevations of successive points in a line extending across a strip of ground."
This invention is an application of pure mechanical engineering. Bush was the inventor of an early mechanical analog computer called the differential analyzer. As they say, "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." In those days, a mechanism was the best way to do computing.

Figure from US Patent No. 1,048,649

Figure three from Vannevar Bush's first patent, US Patent No. 1,048,649, "Profile Tracer," December 31, 1912.

via Google Patents).[4])

The reason why I write about this is because
Claude Shannon, the founder of information theory, worked on Bush's computer project while a graduate student in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It's safe to say that this introduction to computing influenced Shannon greatly, and the history of computing and communications was influenced as well. April 30, 2016, marks the centennial of Shannon's birth.

Claude E. Shannon

Claude Shannon demonstrating a maze-solving mouse, called Theseus, in 1950.[5]

The necessary computation and memory operations were done using electromechanical relays.

(Still image from a YouTube video by BinarycoreMedia, April 30, 2013, modified for artistic effect.)

Most of Shannon's early life was spent in Gaylord, Michigan, where he graduated from Gaylord High School in 1932. As many other young scientists and engineers did in their childhood, Shannon enjoyed building mechanical and electrical devices at home, including a radio transmitter and receiver.

After high school graduation, Shanon was a student at the University of Michigan, from which he graduated in 1936 with degreess in both electrical engineering and mathematics. As a graduate student at MIT, he wrote a Master's thesis entitled, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits. This thesis was on the use of Boolean algebra for efficient switching of telephone circuits.

Figure 30 from Claude Shannon's 1940 Master's thesis

Figure 30 from Claude Shannon's 1940 Master's thesis. (Via MIT Library.)[6]

At Vannevar Bush's suggestion, Shannon applied his mathematics to Mendelian genetics for his Ph.D. from MIT. His thesis was entitled, "An Algebra for Theoretical Genetics."[7] After his Ph.D., Shannon became a National Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, New Jersey), then joining Bell Labs to work on military projects, including cryptography, during World War II. In his cryptographic work, Shannon proved that properly constructed one-time pads were unbreakable.

Shannon met his future wife, Betty, at Bell Labs where she worked as a numerical analyst, and they were married in 1949. At Bell Labs, Shannon published his most famous paper, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication," in 1948 in two parts in the Bell System Technical Journal.[8-9] This paper was the foundation of information theory. In it, Shannon defined the concept of information entropy.

Shannon joined MIT's faculty and its Research Laboratory of Electronics in 1956. He was a faculty member at MIT until 1978. Among his doctoral students were computer pioneers, Danny Hillis, founder of Thinking Machines Corporation, and Ivan Sutherland, co-founder of the computer graphics company, Evans & Sutherland.

I experienced one of Shannon's creations first-hand while in high school. Our mathematics club was the proud possessor of a Minivac 601, a small electromechanical digital computer (see photograph).[10] This computer was first sold in 1961 by Scientific Development Corporation. An improved device, the Minivac 6010, was introduced a year later. The Minivac was designed to demonstrate simple binary logic functions, Although it could be programmed to play tic-tac-toe, I remember that my club was never able to get that program working.

The Minivac 601, an electromechanical computer designed by Claude Shannon

The Minivac 601, an electromechanical computer designed by Claude Shannon. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Shannon developed Alzheimer's disease, and he died on February 24, 2001. Among his many honors are the 1966 Medal of Honor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the 1966 National Medal of Science, presented by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Through it all, he was modest about his accomplishments, and he worried that they were being "oversold."[11] Many activities are planned for this centenary year of his birth, including the First Shannon Conference on the Future of the Information Age at Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey, April 28 – 29, 2016. Bell Labs will launch a web exhibit of Shannon's work on April 30, 2016.

Claude Shannon Centenary Logo (IEEE Information Theory Society)

The Claude Shannon Centenary Logo of the IEEE Information Theory Society.

(Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. G. Pascal Zachary, "The Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century," MIT Press, June 11, 1999, 528 pp., ISBN: 978-0262740227 (via Amazon).
  2. Science, The Endless Frontier, A Report to the President by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, July 1945, (United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1945).
  3. Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1945.
  4. Vannevar Bush, "Profile Tracer," US Patent No. 1,048,649, December 31, 1912 (Google Patents).
  5. Claude Shannon demonstrates machine learning, YouTube Video by Sean Palmer, May 17, 2014. In this video, Shannon describes himself as a mathematician.
  6. Claude Elwood Shannon, "A symbolic analysis of relay and switching circuits," Master's Thesis, MIT Library, 1940 (PDF File).
  7. Claude Elwood Shannon, "An Algebra for Theoretical Genetics," Ph.D. Thesis, MIT Library, 1940 (PDF File).
  8. Claude E. Shannon, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication", Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27, no. 3 (July, 1948), pp. 379-423.
  9. Claude E. Shannon, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication", Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27, no. 4 (October, 1948), pp. 623-656.
  10. Alexander B. Magoun, "Did Claude Shannon Invent a Groundbreaking Personal Computer?" The Institute (IEEE), April 1, 2016.
  11. G. Pascal Zachary, "Celebrating Claude Shannon," IEEE Spectrum April, 2016, p. 8.
  12. John Horgan, "Claude Shannon: Tinkerer, Prankster, and Father of Information Theory," IEEE Spectrum, April 27, 2016.
  13. Claude Shannon Juggling in 1985 on CBC's "The Nature of Things," YouTube Video, June 3, 2007.

Permanent Link to this article

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