Friday, 29 April 2016

Claude Shannon: The juggling father of the information age who coined the term 'bit'

Who was Claude Shannon?

From building two-seater unicycles, juggling robots to creating chess-playing machines, Claude Elwood Shannon was not just an information theorist. The gifted mathematician also used his skills to analyse the stock market with a system he designed though his methods remained unpublished.

The American electrical engineer and cryptographer was the grandson of an inventor and a distant cousin of Thomas Edison and would earn money by repairing radios when he was a schoolboy. He went on to study electrical engineering and mathematics at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1936, and obtained his PhD in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1940.

During the Second World War, he designed equipment to intercept V1 and V2 missiles and in Axis code-breaking and while working at Bell Labs, he is believed to have met codebreaker Alan Turing, though there is no record of their meeting.

He became a visiting professor at MIT in 1956, and a permanent member of the faculty in 1958.

During his working life, Shannon worked on early mechanical computers under Vannevar Bush, who subsequently forecast the World Wide Web some 40 years before its invention.

He married Betty Moore in 1939 and had a son and a daughter.

Shannon was completely focused on his work, though that was not to say he was anti-social. His days at work began with a game of chess with the Mathematics Centre director and he would work until late evening on his own. Revered in the Soviet Union, Shannon did not seek praise from his contemporaries. In fact, he spent long periods away from the field he had contributed so much to.

Such was his fame that when he attempted to attend the Information Theory Symposium at Brighton in 1985 under disguise, rumours went around of his attendance and soon he was found out. Once discovered, he was given large applause before a speech, where it was remarked that it was clear he was suffering from the early effects of Alzheimer's. He died in February 2001.
What was the impact of his theory?

One of the things Shannon is most remembered for is how we quantify information today in “bits” and “bytes.” To express information in a “bit,” one uses a binary digit, either a “1” or a “0.” These binary digits can describe everything from words to pictures to the most sophisticated gaming software.

At MIT he worked on the "differential analyser", the world's leading computer at the time but Shannon's experience with this slow machine led to his vision that computers should be built not using motors but electrical circuits.

It was Shannon's master's thesis, A Symbolic Analysis Of Relay And Switching Circuits, that showed the possibility of solving problems simply by manipulating two symbols - 1 and 0 - in an automatic electric circuit. It referred to Boolean algebra where 1 equals true and O equals false, so for circuits, 1 meant they were turned on and 0 would mean circuits were turned off.

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