Shannon, Claude E

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Shannon, Claude E.

American Mathematician and Electrical Engineer

An American mathematician and electrical engineer, Claude E. Shannon has been called the father of information theory . His early work had a significant impact on the early development of digital computer technology, and later in the twentieth century, his theories about communication contributed to the rapid evolution of telecommunications capabilities.

Shannon was born in Gaylord, Michigan, on April 30, 1916. As a child, he became interested in engineering and problem solving. These characteristics were revealed in such pastimes as the creation of a fully functioning telegraph system between his home and that of a friend who lived a half-mile away. In the fall of 1932, Shannon entered the University of Michigan, intending to major in electrical engineering. During his undergraduate years, he developed a keen interest in mathematics as well. In 1936 he completed his bachelor's degree with majors in both subjects.

Shortly after graduation, Shannon accepted a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned two master's degrees, one in mathematics and one in electrical engineering, as well as a doctorate in mathematics. In this first job, Shannon worked with an early analog computer built by Vannevar Bush, who was also the vice president of MIT. The machine, called a differential analyzer, was a mechanical system based on electrical relay circuits. Shannon applied the principles of Boolean algebra and symbolic logic, which he studied as an undergraduate, to the problem of describing the way the differential analyzer's relay circuits worked.

In 1937 Shannon submitted a master's thesis on the subject. Titled "A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits," the paper has been called "one of the most influential master's theses ever written," because in it, Shannon laid the logical foundation for building digital circuitry. All contemporary computer systems are based on Shannon's symbolic explanation of the behavior of relay circuits.

By 1940 Shannon had completed his graduate studies at MIT and joined Bell Laboratories as a researcher studying the electronic transmission of information. During World War II, Shannon's energies were directed toward the interception and transmission of codes and other military applications of electronic technologies that were being developed to assist in the war effort. He became acquainted with Alan Turing, a British pioneer of computer technology, and others whose work would contribute to the mid-twentieth century evolution of the computer as a business tool.

Shannon's interest in understanding the electronic communication of information led him to focus on this subject in his research. In 1949 he issued The Mathematical Theory of Communication, a work that formed the foundation for the field of inquiry known as information theory. Shannon proposed that data could be broken into small components called "bits" to be transmitted electronically. The ideas Shannon proposed found their application during the last quarter of the twentieth century when telecommunications technology had advanced enough to demonstrate aspects of Shannon's theory that could not be supported by the technology of vacuum tubes . Shannon's information theory continues to shape the development of electronic communications media, from consumer products such as compact disks and home computers to business and scientific endeavors including the exploration of outer space with unmanned vehicles.

In the 1950s Shannon explored the frontiers of artificial intelligence (AI) , building chess-playing computers and a maze-running mechanical mouse. He was convinced that computers could be designed and programmed to function in ways similar to the human brain. By the late 1950s Shannon was teaching at MIT in addition to conducting research at the Bell Labs. From 1958 to 1978, he served full-time as MIT's Donner Professor of Science. He won many awards during his career as an academic, and he directly influenced a generation of electrical engineers involved in the cutting edge of computer development.

After his retirement in 1978, Shannon continued to invent gadgets and explore emerging applications of electronic technology. In addition to lecturing and publishing occasionally, he enjoyed mastering early computer games like Pac-Man, and indulged his interest in inventing by creating such contraptions as a two-seated unicycle. In fact, he was known to have mastered the skill of riding a unicycle, which was a gift from his wife, while juggling multiple objects.

Shannon married Mary Elizabeth Moore, a Bell Labs co-worker, in 1949. Together they eventually raised three children. Shannon died on February 24, 2001, following a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease.

Although Claude Shannon is not a household name, his life's work influences people worldwide daily through technology that is commonplace today, including fax machines, Internet instant messaging, and satellite, radio or television transmissions. Although his original ideas predated the technical ability to implement them, the mathematical theories he used to describe the hypothetical dissemination of information through digital electronic means are at the foundation of virtually every form of modern digital communications technology.

see also Bandwidth; Bell Labs; Internet; Telecommunications.

Pamela Willwerth Aue


"Computing Before Silicon." Technology Review 103, no. 3 (2000): 120.

Internet Resources

"Biography of Claude Elwood Shannon." AT&T Labs Research. <>

"Claude Shannon 19162001." AT&T LabsResearch. <>

"Michigan GreatsClaude Shannon." UM Research. <>

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