Fascinating people, advanced technology, Artificial Intelligence

Claude E. Shannon: Another Contemporary Giant and the Father of Information Theory Lost to Eternity


The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Spectrum (IEEE) ran a Special Edition about Claude Shannon, which they called Tinkerer, Prankster, and Father of Information Theory in its April 1992 issue because he was so revered by the scientific community.

He was born in Petoskey, Michigan (April 30, 1916 – February 24, 2001) to Claude Senior and Mabel Wolf Shannon. Both were smart and well educated.

At the age of 16 years, Shannon graduated from Gaylord High School. He had an inclination toward mechanical and electrical things. That year he entered the University of Michigan where he took a course that introduced him to the mathematics of George Boole. In 1936, at the age of 20,  he graduated from UMich with bachelor’s degrees in engineering and mathematics. That same year he began his graduate studies in electrical engineering at MIT.

At MIT, he worked on Vannevar Bush’s Differential Analyzer an early analog computer. During this period Shannon designed circuits based upon George Boole’s concepts. In 1937, he wrote his master’s thesis, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits. But Shannon didn’t stop there.

Vannevar Bush suggested that Shannon should work on his doctoral dissertation at the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, a private nonprofit institution located in Cold Spring Harbor, New York in order to develop Mendelian genetics. This resulted in Shannon’s PhD thesis An Algebra for Theoretical Genetics. He received his PhD degree from MIT in 1940.

From his work and logic circuits, he simplified the relays that were used in call routing switches, and proved that his circuits could solve the same problems that Boolean algebra code solve.                                     

In 1940, he became a National Research Fellow with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. This gave him the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with such people as Herman Weyl and John von Neumann. Occasionally he met with Kurt Godel and Albert Einstein.

In 1941, Shannon joined Bell Laboratories to work on fire control systems and cryptography.

It was during this time that Shannon and Alan Turing met and learned from each other over a two-month period. We lost both of these mathematical geniuses way too early. Had these two men lived longer and collaborated, it is possible that we would be a full generation ahead of where we are now in both our mathematical knowledge and our standard of living.

As noted above, Shannon is known as the father of Information Theory and his work in cryptography was closely related to this. In 1945 he wrote a classified document for Bell Labs titled “A Mathematical Theory of Cryptography.” Bell Labs called him one of the greatest electrical engineering heroes of all time.

If you are interested, here is a link to Claude E. Shannon’s paper Programming a Computer for Playing Chess.

What amazes me is Claude Shannon did ground breaking work in switching, genetics, information theory, and cryptography as well as laid a foundation for Artificial Intelligence and I never heard about him in school. I only became aware of him a couple of years ago.

Information Theory


In 1948 in his Mathematical Theory of Communication, Shannon was to the parts of a communication system as:

  1. Information source
  2. Transmitter
  3. Channel
  4. Receiver
  5. Destination

Shannon’s Communication Theory Diagram

I will have additional posts about Claude Shannon.