Business Superhero: Claude Shannon

1 Sep 2016

After our last Business Superhero, I got to thinking about other pioneers who made seemingly small innovations, but ones that are so essential to our modern world that we couldn’t get by without them.

As such, I thought I’d feature a man whose contribution to the way we encode and transmit data is quite literally the foundation of the information age: Claude Shannon.

Shannon, who was born in 1916, sounds like he would have been an amazing person to know. Not only was he a mathematical genius and codebreaker, but he sounds like a genuinely fun guy. The number of stories you can find online about his unicycling, juggling, and tinkering speak of a person with a great sense of humour.

Just as an aside, I personally love his “Ultimate Machine”—ok maybe a machine that exists only to turn itself off is a bit sinister according to Asimov, but I think it’s hilarious as well.

But how did he provide the foundation to our modern world? In two seemingly minor, but vital innovations. The first was to realise that, in order to transmit data clearly, you had to transmit it within what we would now call the bandwidth or limitations of the hardware (in his case the actual telephone cables). And the second was to realise that all data could be boiled down into “bits” to make it easier to transmit. These bits (or binary digits) needed to be simple, just a way to indicate “true” and “false”: 1 or 0.

With these two discoveries, Shannon reserved himself a place in history of information technology as a true founder of the field.

This New Yorker article’s quote from James Gleick, the author of “The Information,” perfectly sums up why people like Shannon (and our previous Business Superhero Donald Davies) are so important to remember:

“It’s Shannon whose fingerprints are on every electronic device we own, every computer screen we gaze into, every means of digital communication. He’s one of these people who so transform the world that, after the transformation, the old world is forgotten.”

I really can’t say it better than that…it’s vital that we remember the founders of our modern technological world. By forgetting them, we turn their accomplishments into magic, rather than the work of human genius.


A few more articles about the life of Claude Shannon if you are interested: