Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Thursday 08/03/2001A quiet night in, as I've been asked to write the obituary of Claude Shannon, who died last week aged 84. Virtually unknown outside telecommunications and mathematical circles, he was a mathematician who single-handedly invented information theory -- which makes modems and cellphones and all manner of communications work.

Thursday
08/03/2001 A quiet night in, as I've been asked to write the obituary of Claude Shannon, who died last week aged 84. Virtually unknown outside telecommunications and mathematical circles, he was a mathematician who single-handedly invented information theory -- which makes modems and cellphones and all manner of communications work. Oh, and he came up with the idea of the bit. And, at about the same time, cooked up the mathematical basis for cryptography. It's not fair to single out one person and say 'here is the father of the modern age', but I've little doubt that when they come to write the history of the hundred years between 1950 and 2050, he'll be seen as exactly that. He was at Bell Labs when he did his finest work, at around the same time as the place was producing the transistor, much of the computer and so on and so forth. An incredible nexus. After the fifties, though, he went much quieter, teaching a bit and inventing hosts of whacky machines -- chess playing robots, rocket-powered pogo sticks, two-seater unicycles, and so on. He became virtually unknown, even in his very own field of Information Theory at the time it was becoming of increasing importance. It's easy to think that he never got the fame he deserved -- and in a way, he didn't. But he very clearly didn't want any attention, and seemed to have led a life that went almost exactly the way he wanted it. He changed the world, but it was an unintentional side effect.