Claude Shannon: A Bit more Information

A juggling unicyclist who transformed “information” from a vague idea into a precise concept that underlies the digital revolution. Claude Shannon was one of the greatest of the giants who created the information age.

Our ability to transform information – phone calls, music, video, virtually everything – into digital bits of data and to transmit billions of them per second is founded upon the innovative work of Claude Shannon (1916-2001), an American mathematician, electronic engineer, and cryptographer.

The entire science of information theory grew out of one seminal paper that Shannon published in 1948, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication“, when he was a 32-year-old researcher at Bell Laboratories. Shannon showed how the once-vague notion of information could be defined and quantified with absolute precision. He demonstrated the essential unity of all information media, pointing out that text, telephone signals, radio waves, pictures, film and every other mode of communication could be encoded in the universal language of binary digits, or bits-a term that his article was the first to use in print.

binary code

The paper established a whole new discipline, Information Theory, by showing how Boolean algebra and basic thermodynamic principles could be applied to communications. It turned “information” from a vague word related to how much someone knew about something into a precise mathematical unit that could be measured, manipulated and transmitted.

Shannon Information Equation

Shannon Information Equation

It was the start of the science of “information theory”, a set of ideas that has allowed us to build the internet, digital computers and telecommunications systems. His extraordinary idea – that basic principles of binary or digital information can be related to fundamental physical laws– was instrumental in shaping our digital era. Today, Shannon’s theory remains the guiding foundation for communication scientists and engineers in their ongoing quest for faster, more energy efficient, and more robust communication systems.

Outside of his academic pursuits, Shannon was interested in juggling, unicycling, and chess. He also invented many devices, including rocket-powered flying discs and a motorized pogo stick. There was also the Throbac (THrifty ROman-numerical BAckward-looking Computer), a calculator that did arithmetic with Roman numerals, and Theseus, a life-sized mechanical mouse that could find its way through a maze. One of his more humorous devices was a box kept on his desk called the “Ultimate Machine”, based on an idea by Marvin Minsky. Otherwise featureless, the box possessed a single switch on its side. When the switch was flipped, the lid of the box opened and a mechanical hand reached out, flipped off the switch, then retracted back inside the box.

I was always interested in building things with funny motions,” Shannon explained in a 1987 interview with Omni magazine (one of the few times he spoke about his life publicly).

Much of the power of Shannon’s idea of information lay in its unification of what had been a diverse bunch of technologies. He showed that all communication was fundamentally the same and  that you could take any source and represent it by digital data.

When anyone talks about the information revolution of the last decades, it is Shannon’s idea of information that they are talking about. Shannon Information.

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