Claude Elwood Shannon: The Father of Information Theory

Claude Shannon


Claude Shannon grew-up in Gaylord, Michigan during the 1920’s where he spent his free time fixing radios for a nearby department store, building radio-controlled boats, model planes, and perhaps most impressively, a telegraph system to his friend’s house that spanned a distance of a half of a mile. In 1932 Shannon left Gaylord to attend the University of Michigan where he later graduated with two bachelors degrees, one in mathematics and another in engineering. Upon completing his undergraduate degrees Shannon took a research position at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he pursued an advanced degree while working part-time for the Electrical Engineering Department.

Throughout his life Shannon expressed a love for what he called ‘funny motions,’ he loved complex machinery and was a prolific builder of machines and mechanical objects. At M.I.T. Shannon thrived as a research assistant for Vannevar Bush, the dean of engineering and the creator of The Differential Analyzer, which was the most advanced computing machine on the planet at the time. Unlike modern computers, The Differential Analyzer took up the majority of a large room and used a series of gears, pulleys and rods to compute equations[1], assuredly there were plenty of the ‘funny motions’ Shannon loved within the great computing machine. While working with Vannevar Bush it was Shannon’s job to physically set up the mechanics of the machine for researchers to use.

While at M.I.T. Shannon wrote his dissertation “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits,” which has been praised as being one of the most influential masters thesis of all time. In his thesis, Shannon suggested that telephone routing switches could be simplified by the use of Boolean algebra and binary arithmetic. In his paper he proved this, along with the reverse: an array of switches could be used to solve algebraic equations in binary[2]. Although this thesis may seem abstract, it is the underlying concept behind all digital computers.

Amazingly, Shannon finished his masters degree and a doctorate in mathematics in a brief year-and-a-half. Shortly following the completion of his degree and at the onset of World War II, Shannon joined Bell Labs. Throughout the war Shannon worked on army projects concerning cryptography and fire-control systems. In total, Shannon ended up working at Bell Labs for fifteen years, where he wrote numerous papers, and was infamous for riding his unicycle through the labs at night while juggling. It was also at Bell Labs that Shannon met and married his wife Betty who worked as a computer, or a numerical analysts, for Bell.

During 1940 and 1941 Shannon worked on a National Research Fellowship while at Bell. It was during this time that he began to synthesize his ideas on efficient communication systems and information theory[3]. However it wasn’t until 1948 that Shannon published what is arguably his most influential work, a paper that he quietly executed, and subsequently published in The Bell System Technical Journal, called  “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” With this paper Shannon paved the way for other scientists to begin to process information, by defining the modern concept of information. Although information industries existed and thrived before Shannon’s pivotal paper, information was quantifiable only in the amount of energy it took to transport. Shannon’s paper made information a measurable entity in its own right; it was Claude Shannon who first discovered and defined the bit (binary digit). “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” also presented the idea that information could be transmitted digitally with few to no errors as long as the transmission rate was below the capacity of the channel that was transmitting the information.

The fundamental concepts of Information Theory that were outlined in “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” are still the backbone of the field today. Shannon’s equation for measuring the quantity of information, and even that information is measureable, were truly revolutionary ideas for the time. Now, over a half of a decade after Shannon first published his paper these concepts, like channel capacity, are unquestioned aspects of everyday life and study.

When considering Information Theory in the context of Library Information Sciences it is important to remember that Shannon’s theory deals exclusively with the quantity of information and its degree of order (that can be measured and mathematically manipulated) and nothing to do with the meaning held within each packet of information. Nonetheless, Information Theory, and its inherent laws are the silent cogs that keep the Information Sciences running in our increasingly digital lives. The ability to transmit information digitally without error has changed, and continues to change and evolve the field of Library Information Sciences. Without Shannon’s theory there would be no data-compression algorithms and no data-correcting codes: that means no CD’s, no Word Documents or PDFs, no remote file sharing[4].

Shannon’s paper marked an explosion of interest in information and Information Theory: Shannon was asked to lecture throughout the country and researchers began submit papers and grant applications touting “Information Theory” just to garner interest in them. Shannon, always shy to celebrity, was appalled by Information Theory’s popularity and dropped off of the map for a few years, pursing other projects and neglecting his mail.

Shannon went  on to become a major player in the ‘Computer Chess Programming Project,’ and even once had the chance to play a game of chess against Mikhail Botvinnik (a long standing World Chess Champion). Amazingly Shannon took a slight lead against Botvinnik in the middle of the game, but he eventually lost after forty-two moves. Shannon also took a research interest in maze-solving and artificial intelligence. In 1950, he built a maze-solving robotic mouse named Theseus, which was capable of ‘learning’ from its prior trips through the maze to solve new maze problems.

In 1978 at the age of 62 Shannon officially retired, after teaching for a few years prior at M.I.T. In his retirement Shannon enjoyed building machines like a gasoline-powered pogo-stick, a two-person unicycle, a juggling W.C. Fields mannequin and a computer that calculated equations in Roman numerals named THROBAC[5]. Sadly in 1985 it became apparent to Betty and their children that Shannon was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. By 1992 he could no longer remember writing many of his magnificent papers and only a year later his family reluctantly placed him in a special care home. Although Betty reported that he was physically strong almost up until the end, Shannon passed away on February 24, 2001, just two-months shy of his 85th birthday.


Waldrop, M. M. (2001, July/August). Reluctant father of the digital age: Claude shannon. Technology ReviewJuly/August(2001), 64-71.

Claude Shannon. (2012, October 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:37, October 16, 2012, from

Information theory. (2012, October 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:38, October 16, 2012, from

Sloane, N. J. A. (January, 1990). Biography of claude elwood shannon. Retrieved from

Calderbank, R. (2001, April 12). Claude shannon 1916-2001. Nature410(6830), 768. Retrieved from

Claude shannon. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Weisstein, E. W. (1999, June 12). Shannon, claude elmwood (1916-2001). Retrieved from

[1] Waldrop, M. M. Reluctant father of the digital age: Claude Shannon, pp. 66

[3]Sloane, N. J. A. (January, 1990). Biography of claude elwood shannon. Retrieved from

[4] Waldrop, M. M. Reluctant father of the digital age: Claude Shannon, pp. 70

[5] Sloane, N. J. A. (January, 1990). Biography of claude elwood shannon. Retrieved from

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