Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, Bill Gates—names you probably recognize. But today’s Google Doodle (the animation above the search bar on Google.com) celebrates a slightly less heralded mastermind of the digital age, Claude Shannon, who would have been 100 today.
In today’s Doodle, a cartoon of Shannon juggles the digits spelling out that birthday: 1-0-0. Those numbers also point to his most profound accomplishment.
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Shannon came up with an idea we now all take for granted—the bit. Before Shannon, data was mostly analog, and that’s how people thought of it— as flows, pulses, and waves, travelling through a turntable needle, or over a telegraph or telephone wire.
But in 1948, Shannon suggested that all data could be reduced to zeros and ones, easily measured, processed, and copied—and that’s now the basic architecture that underlies large chunks of our everyday lives. In fact, Shannon’s master’s thesis a decade before had already explored the idea of processing binary information with electronic circuits. That made it, the computer scientist Herman Goldstine tells The New Yorker, “one of the most important master’s theses ever written.”
Shannon also came up with the idea of “channel capacity,” a measurement of the total flow of data a medium could handle.
As with many geniuses, of course, Shannon’s quirks attracted attention. Google has him juggling bits in tribute to his enthusiasm for juggling, and he was a devotee of unicycles. Shannon built a primitive juggling robot in the 1970s, as well as a machine that could solve a Rubik’s Cube.
And, in a dark prank foreshadowing our anxiety over artificial intelligence, Shannon built a machine whose only purpose was to turn itself off.
After about 1960, Shannon seems to have practically disappeared, and barely even attended the ceremonies for awards given in his name. He passed away in 2001.