sciencenews | Before anybody even had a computer, Claude Shannon figured out how to make computers worth having.
As an electrical engineering graduate student at MIT, Shannon played around with a “differential analyzer,” a crude forerunner to computers. But for his master’s thesis, he was more concerned with relays and switches in electrical circuits, the sorts of things found in telephone exchange networks. In 1937 he produced, in the words of mathematician Solomon Golomb, “one of the greatest master’s theses ever,” establishing the connection between symbolic logic and the math for describing such circuitry. Shannon’s math worked not just for telephone exchanges or other electrical devices, but for any circuits, including the electronic circuitry that in subsequent decades would make digital computers so powerful.
It’s now conveniently a good time to celebrate Shannon’s achievements, on the occasion of the centennial of his birth (April 30) in Petoskey, Michigan, in 1916. Based on the pervasive importance of computing in society today, it wouldn’t be crazy to call the time since then “Shannon’s Century.”
“It is no exaggeration,” wrote Golomb, “to refer to Claude Shannon as the ‘father of the information age,’ and his intellectual achievement as one of the greatest of the twentieth century.”
Shannon is most well-known for creating an entirely new scientific field — information theory — in a pair of papers published in 1948. His foundation for that work, though, was built a decade earlier, in his thesis. There he devised equations that represented the behavior of electrical circuitry. How a circuit behaves depends on the interactions of relays and switches that can connect (or not) one terminal to another. Shannon sought a “calculus” for mathematically representing a circuit’s connections, allowing scientists to be able to design circuits effectively for various tasks. (He provided examples of the circuit math for an electronic combination lock and some other devices.)