Claude Elwood Shannon, an American mathematical engineer, is considered as ‘Father of the Information Age’. While studying the Boolean language, he discovered that electrical circuits can be constructed to transmit information without any loss in quality or degradation due to amplification stages such as in analogue circuits. He was also involved in the creation of integrated circuits, cryptography, computers, and artificial intelligence.
He never won a Nobel Prize, but he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in 1985
Shannon was born on April 30, 1916, in the small town of Gaylord, Michigan. His father was a probate judge and his mother the principal of the local high school. During his youth his mentor was Thomas Edison, whom he later discovered to be a distant relative. At college he studied mathematics and electrical engineering, and his primary passion was radio and model airplanes. He also built a telegraph system for a friend during his college period.
He graduated in 1936 from the University of Michigan with two bachelor’s degrees and continued his graduated studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He wrote his thesis A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits in 1937, and published it in 1938. It demonstrated that with Boolean algebra and relays, electronic circuits could be constructed to resolve logical and numerical calculations. This was the foundation of digital circuits and logical computer circuitry. In 1940, the thesis awarded Shannon The Alfred Nobel American Institute of American Engineers Award.
His thesis was described as “possibly the most important, and also the most famous, Master’s thesis of the century”.
After he applied to an ad that MIT submitted to work on a differential analyser, an early analogue computer, he joined Vannevar Bush team, but he left MIT in 1940 to teach at Princeton and the following year he joined Bell Electronics in the research department.
During the war at Bell research he worked on anti-aircraft devices that could calculate and target enemy planes or rockets such as German V1 and V2 rockets that hit England during the war, and on data transmission encryption that was used between Churchill and Roosevelt during their transatlantic communications between the two leaders.
Later in the 1940s Shannon wrote Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems, which is the fundamental of modern cryptography.
After the war, Shannon focused on how telephone systems could use binary values to improve communications and network. In the late 1940s, analogue amplifiers were used for long distance calls which degrade the sound quality due to the fact that the noise was also amplified. While others tried to find a better way using analogue circuits, Shannon’s work focused on the digital world, and in 1948 he wrote A Mathematical Theory of Communication, which theoretically explained how digital communication was possible. The article was published in the Bell system technical research circles and was a success for Shannon’s carrier as it revolutionised the way engineers thought about communications.
The papers that Shannon wrote led Bell technology in developing the first regenerative repeater, the first rudimentary analogue to digital converter. In his papers, he also explained the factor of bandwidth or known as the Shannon Limit or Shannon Capacity, and bits of information can be compressed or loss of bits could be recovered with an algorithm which this theory is today used in JPEGs, MPG, and MP3s over the internet.
In 1949, he married Mary Elizabeth Moore and by that time Shannon was an academic celebrity. The same year he built the first rudimentary computer chess and the following year he wrote a paper on how programming the machines and on how to play chess, including algorithms that are still in use today. He also ventured in the artificial intelligence field where he built a maze and an electrical mouse which was capable of solving and memorising the maze.
Shannon left Bell in 1956 and returned to MIT to teach. In 1973, the Information Theory Society, now known as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, instituted an annual Shannon lecture that evolved into the Shannon Award. Since Shannon was out of information theory for more than 10 years, he felt that people expected a lot from him and that he did not have anything significant to say, but his speech showed that Shannon was still ahead of his time. In 1978 he retired from MIT and he gave his last interview in 1989 to the Omni Magazine. He never won a Nobel Prize, but he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in 1985, a Japanese award similar to the Nobel Prize. On February 24, 2001, at the age of 84, Shannon lost his battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
In the Scientific American of January 1990, his papers were described as the “Magna Carta of the Information Age”.
With his theories, Shannon gave us the key to the digital world we live today, and put us 20 years ahead. Maybe someone else could have come up with his theory but at the time analogue circuits were dominant and his out of the box mentality gave us the most important theory of the 20th century and changed our lives completely.
Maurizio Banavage probably has Malta’s largest private collection of vintage personal computers.
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