Claude Shannon; Theorist Launched the Digital Age

From Times Wire Services

Claude Shannon, considered to be the father of modern digital communications and information theory, has died.

Shannon, professor emeritus at MIT, died Saturday at a Massachusetts nursing home after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

A distant relative of Thomas Edison, Shannon was affiliated with Bell Laboratories from 1941 to 1972, during which time he wrote the landmark paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.”

That 1948 paper begins by observing that “the fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.” The information content of a message, Shannon theorized, consists simply of the number of 1s and 0s it takes to transmit it.


“Nobody had come close to this idea before,” said Robert Gallager, another MIT professor emeritus, who worked with Shannon. “This was not something somebody else would have done for a very long time.”

Communications engineers adopted the idea and created the technology that led to today’s Information Age. All communication lines are measured in bits per second, reflecting what Shannon had called channel capacity.

His theory also made it possible to use bits in computer storage for pictures, voice streams and other data.

Born in Michigan, Shannon earned undergraduate degrees in mathematics and electrical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1936. He came to MIT as a graduate student and earned his doctorate in 1940.


By the next year, the United States had entered World War II and Shannon, a noted cryptographer, worked on secrecy systems at Bell Labs in New Jersey. His team’s work on antiaircraft directors--devices that observe enemy planes or missiles and calculate the aim of defensive weapons--became crucial when German rockets were used against England.

His 1949 paper “Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems” is generally credited with transforming cryptography from an art to a science.

He worked at Bell Labs from 1941 through 1972. While at Bell Labs, he met and married Mary Elizabeth Moore. The couple returned to Massachusetts, and Shannon joined MIT’s faculty.

He had a whimsical side and developed a juggling machine, rocket-powered Frisbees, motorized pogo sticks, a “mind-reading machine” and a mechanical mouse that could navigate a maze.


There was also THROBAC-I, which computed in Roman numerals. And nearly half a century before Deep Blue beat Russian master Garry Kasparov, Shannon described how to build a computer that played chess.

Among his many awards were the National Medal of Science and the Kyoto Prize for Basic Science.

“He’s one of the great men of the century. Without him, none of the things we know today would exist. The whole digital revolution started with him,” Neil Sloane, an AT&T; fellow who co-edited Shannon’s collected works, said in Tuesday’s editions of the Star-Ledger of Newark.

He is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, two granddaughters, and a sister.