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Claude E. Shannon

Professor Emeritus Claude E. Shannon PhD ’40 died last Saturday at the Courtyard Nursing Care Center in Medford, Mass. after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 84 years old.

Shannon was known by many as the father of digital communication for his landmark 1948 publication “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” In this revolutionary paper, he theorized that it was possible to reduce all communications to strings of 0s and 1s and use them to transfer messages without errors over long distances.

“Shannon was the person who saw that the binary digit was the fundamental element in all of communication,” said Professor Emeritus Robert G. Gallager ’57, who worked with Shannon, to The New York Times. “That was really his discovery, and from it the whole communications revolution has sprung.”

Shannon’s work has made today’s information age possible. His communications theory has been accepted worldwide. All of today’s communication lines are measured in bits per second, a notion he crystallized in his famous “channel capacity” theorem. His binary code is central to the now-commonplace technology that delivers the Internet, complete with sound and pictures, to many homes around the world.

In 1940, Shannon earned both an SM in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a PhD in Mathematics. His Master’s thesis, “A Symbolic Analysis of Real and Switching Circuits,” established the theoretical foundation for digital circuits using Boolean algebra, in which problems are solved by manipulating 0s and 1s.

Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University told Tech Talk that Shannon’s thesis was “possibly the most important, and also the most famous, Master’s thesis of the century.”

While he was a graduate student at MIT, Shannon also worked with Professor Vannevar Bush on his differential analyzer, an analog computer that used a complex system of shafts, wheels, and gears to solve calculus equations.

A noted cryptographer, Shannon worked on secrecy systems at Bell Laboratories during World War II. His team’s work on anti-aircraft directors was crucial in defending England from German rockets during Germany’s blitz of England. Many credit his 1949 paper, “Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems,” with transforming cryptography from an art to a science.

Shannon worked on a variety of other projects, including a device that could solve a Rubik’s Cube, a chess-playing computer, and an electronic mouse that could run a maze. His work helped create the field of artificial intelligence, the attempt to make machines make decisions like people would, and he serves as an inspiration for a generation of computer scientists.

Shannon was born on April 30, 1916. In 1936 he earned a SB in Mathematics and Computer Science from the University of Michigan. He came to MIT as a visiting professor in 1956. From 1958 to 1978, he was MIT’s Donnor Professor of Science. In 1978, he became a professor emeritus.

He is survived by his wife, Mary; his son, Andrew M. Shannon; his daughter, Margarita Shannon; a sister, Catherine S. Kay; and two granddaughters. Services and burial are private.