Claude Shannon, pioneered digital information theory

Claude Shannon


Driven by a passion to understand "how things were put together," Claude Shannon, who was a distant cousin of Thomas Edison, planted the seed for today's digital communications network.

His legacy as the father of digital communications might be summed in the mantra, "necessity is the mother of invention," in that much of Shannon's major work came after World War II ended.

During the war, Shannon was hired by Bell Labs to work on fire-control systems and cryptography. When the war ended in 1945, Shannon developed a classified memo for Bell Labs called "A Mathematical Theory of Cryptography."

After finishing this paper, Shannon said that his discoveries of communication theory and cryptography came about at the same time and "they were so close together you couldn't separate them." Perhaps as a preview to what would come later, Shannon wrote in a footnote of that paper that he would "develop these results ... in a forthcoming memorandum on the transmission of information."

It was this work that laid the foundation for Shannon to write his paper A Mathematical Theory of Communication. Published in 1948, Shannon found there were fundamental limits on signal processing operations such as compressing data and on reliably storing and communicating data.

At the ripe age of 21, Shannon adapted his fascination with Boolean algebra as the basis for his master's thesis at MIT, called A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits, a work that was designed to simplify the arrangement of the electromechanical relays then used in telephone routing switches. Many in the communications industry regard this paper as a major contribution to the birth of digital computer and digital circuit design theory.

Outside of his work in telecom information theory, Shannon, like Alexander Graham Bell, had a wide-reaching set of eclectic interests and a freestyle personality. There is a now-famous story of how he could sometimes be found juggling while riding a unicycle down the halls of Bell Labs.  

Driven by curiosity, Shannon also became known for designing and building chess-playing, maze-solving, juggling and even mind-reading machines.

And while the focus of our honorees like Claude Shannon is related to the influence they had on the wireline network, Shannon's theories continue to be relevant today in advancing copper and fiber-based networks, and  even emerging next-generation wireless technologies like LTE.