[May 31, 2022] – I recently watched a documentary on the life of Claude Shannon. “The Bit Player” is a worthwhile piece on the originator of information theory. This caused me to retrieve an Obituary/Appreciation I wrote on his passing in February of 2001. Here I present some of the appreciation part.
Shannon was born in Petoskey, Mich., and grew up in Gaylord, Mich. He worked as a messenger for Western Union while in Gaylord High School, and attended college at MIT, where he was a member of Tau Beta Pi.
His paper, “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits,” which led to a long association with Bell Laboratories, laid out Shannon’s theories on the relationship of symbolic logic and relay circuits.
While at Bell Labs, Shannon wrote the landmark “The Mathematical Theory of Communication.” The information content of a message, he theorized, consists simply of the number of 1’s and 0’s it takes to transmit it. In a real sense, Shannon conceived of the “bit” that is now so widely used to represent data.
Shannon’s work led to many inventions used by both technology developers and end users. His theories can truly be described as pervasive today.
When I was young, Shannon’s work was a tough nut to crack, but it certainly was intriguing. As a high school boy, I was interested in the future — maybe more so than now, when I live and breathe and work in what that future became. Grappling with Shannon’s basic information theories was part of my education about the future.
Growing up in a Wisconsin city across the lake from Shannon’s birthplace, I tried to plow through the town library as best I could. I wanted to learn about computers, automation, and the combination of the two that was known in those days (the 1960s) as cybermation.* I discovered for myself — by chance, really — that the fundamental elements of those ideas were Shannon’s inventions.
Much of his greatest work revolved around defining information in relation to “noise,” the latter phenomenon being quite familiar to anyone who often tried desperately to home in on radio signals before digital communication filters came into being. I came to appreciate that aspect of Shannon’s work later on when, as a journalist, I had the opportunity to learn and write about digital signal processing.
Day and night, data, messages, music, and more swirls around us — all made possible to some extent by the idea of communicating electronically in 1’s and 0’s. It is something to think that a Western Union messenger could have conceived of this new world.
Postscript: Of course, Shannon did not envisage or invent PacMan or Puff Daddy MP3s – tho the documentary shows him to be a great fan of shellac jazz. He imagined the river for others to sail. This conjures the words of Herbert Kroemer, inventor of heterostructures that changed evolution of ICs and commercial optics. “A pendulum … goes back and forth from science to applications. Science creates applications … [they] stimulate new science-it’s not one way or the other,” Kroemer said in a Nobelist interview.
Now read the rest of the story – Digital pioneer Claude Shannon dead at 84 – Computerworld – Feb 28, 2001
* I think we meant ‘cybernetics’.