Howard Gardner said Claude Shannon’s MIT master’s thesis was “possibly the most important, and also the most famous, master’s thesis of the century.” If you’ve used the word “bit” (for binary digit), then you have an idea of what he meant. More important, Claude Shannon’s early ideas proved key to the redesign of the telephone system and the development of the modern computer. During World War II, he met the famous British mathematician Alan Turing. That exchange resulted in Shannon’s pioneering analysis of cryptography systems.(A declassified version of his original 1945 memo was published in 1949.) Most notably, Shannon’s 1948 paper, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, was hailed as “the Magna Carta of the information age.” This digital pioneer had another extremely imaginative and playful side. Shannon loved to build mechanical toys for his family. Theseus was more than an electromechanical maze in which a mouse blunders around looking for the “cheese.” Built with his wife Betty, Shannon’s maze was an elegant display of telephone switching technology. When you make a telephone call, information travels the telephone system labyrinth to find the right telephone to ring, just as the mouse in this maze searches for its cheese.
Photo: Michael Cardinali for MIT Museum