Friday, April 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Claude Shannon, the Juggling Scientist

A man of great intellect and playful fantasy …….

“He was one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century, the father of the bit, and the pioneer of the information age in which we live. But Claude Shannon not only stood out by virtue of his perspicacity and ingenuity; he also possessed great humor and originality to boot. The founding father of information theory spent his spare time building juggling robots, chess computers and programmable tin mice. He was often seen riding a unicycle or juggling clubs in his office.”

Shannon was born on this day, April 30, 1916. Walking around Portsmouth today, I asked some of the more senior technical people I encountered (including JV, JC, AM, and KD), about Shannon. They didn’t recognize him. Yet his work with digital information laid the groundwork for the video games, YouTube, MySpace, iTunes, and digital telephony these guys work with daily.

While I was at MIT, I heard stories that Shannon had unicycled down the Infinite Corridor, juggling as he went. I have yet to find anyone who actually saw this event, but I’m still asking. Meanwhile, I asked my friend Len Kleinrock, the Internet pioneer, one of Shannon’s first two PH.D. Students.

“When I first met Shannon in summer of 1958, it was at his home. I remember the huge library he had with a ladder on a track to reach the high books. I was sitting on his porch and he showed me the wire-tracking lawn mower he had installed. He also loved automatic chess playing machines; once in LA with him, before dinner, we went to a chess shop and bought this neat chess game which would move the pieces by actually lifting them up with an arm and moving them - if the piece was not there (when it thought it should be there) the arm went into a catatonic fit,” says Len.

The quotation heading this blog post is from the just ended “Codes and Clowns” exhibition at the Heinz Nixdorf Museums Forum in Paderborn, Germany. The exhibit showcased a selection of his inventions, ranging from the highly practical to the downright useless. The presentation set Shannon’s inventions in the context of his biography and the history of information technology

To see an excellent five minute video on Shannon, click here then select “Video about the exhibition.”

So, Happy Birthday, Claude Shannon. And, as Len Kleinrock proposes, “Let’s all raise our glasses to toast the man I admire the most in my professional life.”
And good news: the Nixdorf Exhibits are on loan from the MIT Museum, the first time that they have been  displayed at a different location.The Heinz Nixdorf Forum exhibition has just closed but this exhibition is en route to Berlin and then Linz, Austria. There is a longer proposed itinerary among museums in German speaking countries but those venues have not yet signed contracts. The tentative plan is for the exhibition to return to the US in late 2012, according to Deborah Douglas, Curator at the MIT Museum.

1 comment:

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