Digital pioneer Claude Shannon dead at 84 –

OBITUARY-APPRECIATION - We live in an age highly influenced by information technology. For many people, it has become the basis for a life's work. For a few, at least, it has meant great fortunes.

Most of the great technologists who set the stage for this era -- for example, Norbert Weiner, Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, and John von Neumann -- are long dead. But Claude Shannon, the great theorist who formed the most basic tenets of the information age, survived until last weekend. He died at 84 last Saturday in Medford, Mass., after a long fight with Alzheimer's disease.

Shannon's work, like his passing, may not be widely noted among many who have followed him in the information, technology, and e-commerce industries. But there is little question that he is the chief progenitor of information theory and modern digital communications. Shannon's mathematical thinking and writing laid the groundwork for most of today's information technology industry. He is the man who discovered 1's and 0's in electronic communication.

Shannon was born in Petoskey, Mich., and grew up in Gaylord, Mich. He worked as a messenger for Western Union while in Gaylord High School, and attended college at MIT, where he was a member of Tau Beta Pi.

Although the algebra of digital binary bits was first uncovered by mathematician George Boole in the mid-19th century, it was Shannon who saw the value of applying that form of logic to electronic communications. As a student of Vannevar Bush's at MIT in the 1930s, he worked on the differential analyzer, perhaps the greatest mechanical (analog) calculator. His paper, "A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits," which led to a long association with Bell Laboratories, laid out Shannon's theories on the relationship of symbolic logic and relay circuits.

While at Bell Labs, Shannon wrote the landmark "The Mathematical Theory of Communication." The information content of a message, he theorized, consists simply of the number of 1's and 0's it takes to transmit it. In a real sense, Shannon conceived of the "bit" that is now so widely used to represent data.

Later, he became a professor at MIT. His students included Marvin Minsky and others who became notable in the field of artificial intelligence. While Shannon's thinking could captivate academicians, it was equally appealing to practical engineers.

Shannon's work led to many inventions used by both technology developers and end users. His theories can truly be described as pervasive today.

When I was young, Shannon's work was a tough nut to crack, but it certainly was intriguing. As a high school boy, I was interested in the future -- maybe more so than now, when I live and breathe and work in what that future became. Grappling with Shannon's basic information theories was part of my education about the future.

Growing up in a Wisconsin city across the lake from Shannon's birthplace, I tried to plow through the town library as best I could. I wanted to learn about computers, automation, and the combination of the two that was known in those days (the 1960s) as cybermation. I discovered for myself -- by chance, really -- that the fundamental elements of those ideas were Shannon's inventions.

For the better part of Shannon's life, analog communication ruled. Of course, his greatest achievement was visualizing digital communication. Much of his greatest work revolved around defining information in relation to "noise," the latter phenomenon being quite familiar to anyone who often tried desperately to home in on radio signals before digital communication filters came into being. I came to appreciate that aspect of Shannon's work later on when, as a journalist, I had the opportunity to learn and write about digital signal processing.

Then I found out that Shannon had laid the groundwork for modern error correction coding, an essential element of things like hard disk drive design and digital audio streaming, and probably many things yet to come.

Day and night, data, messages, music, and more swirls around us -- all made possible to some extent by the idea of communicating electronically in 1's and 0's. It is something to think that a Western Union messenger could have conceived of this new world.

This story, "Digital pioneer Claude Shannon dead at 84" was originally published by ITworld.


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