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Who is Claude Shannon?

Claude Shannon was an American mathematician, electrical engineer and cryptographer known as the “father of information theory”. He was born in 1916 and died in 2001. During his lifetime, he managed to invent several break throughs and the digital revolution started with him. He deserves wider recognition and that’s why we dedicate this blog post to his memory.

He’s one of the great men of the century. Without him, none of the things we know today would exist. The whole digital revolution started with him.

Neil Sloan, AT&T Fellow

Claude Shannon lived in the same era as Alan Turing who is widely known as the man who broke the German Enigma code during WW2. The two met in the early 1940’s in Washington sharing ideas which complemented each others research.

Shannon began his graduate studies in 1936 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). During his time at MIT, he invented switching circuits based on Boolean algebra. Boolean algebra was first introduced by George Boole in 1847 and is the basic concept of digital communication, “1s and 0s”. Switching circuits is the fundamental concept that underlies all electronic digital computers today. The work was documented in his master’s degree thesis “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits” which was published in 1937. The master thesis earned him the Alfred Nobel American Institute of American Engineers award in 1940 and was considered the most famous master thesis of the century.

In 1948, Shannon published another paper – “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. In this paper he defined the subject of information theory and proposed a linear schematic model of a communication system, which was a new idea. Communication was then thought of as requiring electromagnetic waves to be sent down a wire. The idea that one could transmit pictures, words, sounds etc. by sending a stream of 1s and 0s down a wire. Shannon introduced the word “bit” for the first time.

Shannon was also a pioneer within artificial intelligence and machine learning. In 1950, he published a groundbreaking paper on computer chess which led to the first full game played by the Los Alamos MANIAC computer in 1956. The same 1950, he created the electronic mouse “Theseus” which could solve maze problems. It was a magnetic mouse controlled by a relay circuit that enabled it to move around a maze of 25 squares and finally learn the way out of the maze.

The maze configuration was flexible and it could be modified at will. The mouse was designed to search through the corridors until it found the target. Having traveled through the maze, the mouse would then be placed anywhere it had been before and because of its prior experience it could go directly to the target. If placed in unfamiliar territory, it was programmed to search until it reached a known location and then it would proceed to the target, adding the new knowledge to its memory thus learning. Shannon’s mouse appears to have been the first learning device of its kind.

According to Neil Sloane, an AT&T Fellow¬†who co-edited Shannon’s large collection of papers in 1993, the perspective introduced by Shannon’s communication theory (now called information theory) is the foundation of the digital revolution, and every device containing a microprocessor or microcontroller¬†is a conceptual descendant of Shannon’s publication in 1948.

There are a lot of interesting information about Claude Shannon on the Internet. Here’s a few sources you might want to explore. Enjoy!



Theseus – the artificial intelligent mouse (YouTube)