The Unicycling Genius Who Invented Information Theory

Where do technological innovations come from? We have two mental images. One is of a lone genius working in a laboratory or garage, misunderstood until, at long last, the world appreciates her contribution. The other is of a team of busy bees, experts working at a corporation or government agency, the Manhattan Project being the best-known example.

The life of the inventor, mathematician and engineer Claude Shannon merges the two stereotypes. Temperamentally a loner and very much a genius, Shannon was never misunderstood – at an early age he was a protégé of the MIT School of Engineering dean Vannevar Bush – and he became part of the legendary research team at Bell Laboratories. While no one person invented the computer, Shannon’s discovery of the parallelism between the zeroes and ones of binary, or Boolean, logic and the on-off status of electronic circuits was the concept that made electronic computers possible. And, because Shannon was an engineer as well as a theoretician, he built computers, something that the better-known John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener and Alan Turing never did.

Claude Shannon (photo by Alfred Eisenstadt)

In A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, Jimmy Soni, best known as the former editor of the Huffington Post, and Rob Goodman, a graduate student and political speechwriter, chronicle Shannon’s life and scientific achievements. Their style blends traditional biographical information with a considerable amount of scientific content. The book is readable and solidly written, but falls a little short of captivating.

But Shannon’s life and personality are so rich a tale that they shine through the mild blandness of the authors’ presentation.

Early years and engineering tomfoolery

A country boy from Michigan who wanted to be an electrical engineer like his distant cousin Thomas Edison, Shannon showed an obvious gift for engineering as a youth: “his creations included a makeshift elevator, a backyard trolley, and a telegraph system that sent coded messages along a barbed-wire fence.” He was awkward, looking like he was “always on the verge of being mugged or hit by a bus.” Shannon was so self-evidently brilliant that his flight instructor at first declined to teach him, fearing he would crash the plane and die, depriving the world of a first-rate mind.

Shannon could also be sublimely silly. He maintained a fleet of unicycles – including, writes The New Yorker’s Siobhan Roberts, “one without pedals, one with a square tire, and a particularly confounding unicycle built for two.”1 He built a robot whose only ability was to turn itself off using a mechanical hand, and invented a flame-throwing trumpet and a rocket-propelled Frisbee. In the authors’ clever phrase, Shannon “worked with levity and played with gravity” – thus the emphasis, in their title, on a mind that was not at work but at play. Despite some distressing moments, it must have been fun to be Shannon, never feeling as though he had done a day of work in his extraordinarily productive life.