Somebody we should all know a lot more about: Claude Shannon

claudeshannonEvery now and then you find something out that seems almost impossible that you didn’t know it previously.  A few months ago I stumbled across one of those things when speaking with Nick Bellinger. It seemed like a small thing – I mentioned that I had once lived in Petoskey Michigan and he responded that I must know about Claude Shannon. When I said no, he gave me one of those incredulous looks that let me know instantly that I had missed badly. Thankfully, Nick went on to inform me that Mr. Shannon had invented information theory and further that I could read about it in a fascinating book called “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” by Jon Gertner.

I listened with rapt attention to the audio book as it told story after story of Bell Labs and the people who worked there discovering and inventing much of the stuff that the information age is based on. I highly recommend it for the sections on Claude Shannon that portray the finest and quirkiest aspects of human creativity that most of us can only look at in amazement and wonder. Stories of his seemingly ridiculous and fascinating inventions – such as the robotic machine whose only function is to turn itself off – are both wildly humorous and stimulating. Individuals like Shannon are often disregarded as lone wolves who don’t play well with others, but Shannon’s story is a testament to how much we can all benefit enormously from their solitary accomplishments.

Shannon invented Information Theory on his own, without direction or suggestion or, from what anyone can tell, conversation with others about what he was doing. It wasn’t just that he invented the idea of the digital bit and the foundations of digital information transmission – he went on to prove mathematically that information could be transmitted without loss over an arbitrarily noisy network given a sufficient number of bits to do the job. Everything we understand about digital data, error correction, compression, encryption and deduplication is rooted in his work. In short, everything connected to a network – which will soon be almost everything with an on/off switch – uses the theories Shannon invented all by himself. He is truly a towering figure and he is also virtually unknown. Shannon never wanted fame, but it’s just not right that we should be ignorant of his work.

2016 is the 100th anniversary of his birth and you can find articles about him online and find out about events that have taken place in his honor, such as this “Extra Ordinary Event” recently at MIT. I think you’ll get the best picture of Shannon from the Idea Factory, where he was held in the highest esteem by the finest engineering and research team ever assembled.