The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

In 1937, at the precocious age of 21, an MIT graduate student named  Claude Shannon had one of the most important scientific epiphanies of  the century. To explain it requires some brief background. Before coming to MIT, Shannon earned two bachelors degrees at the  University of Michigan: one in mathematics and one in electrical  engineering. The former degree exposed him to Boolean Algebra,  a somewhat obscure branch of philosophy, developed in the  mid-nineteenth century by a self-taught English mathematician named  George Boole. This new algebra took propositional logic, a fuzzy-edged  field of rhetorical inquiry that dated back to the Stoic logicians of  the 3rd century BC, and cast it into clean equations that could be  mechanically-optimized using the tools of modern mathematics. Shannon’s degree in electrical engineering, by contrast, exposed him  to the design of electrical circuits — an endeavor that in the 1930s  still required a healthy dollop of intuition and art. Given a  specification for a circuit, the engineer would tinker until he got  something that worked. (Thomas Edison, for example, was particularly gifted at this type of intuitive electrical construction.) In 1937, in the brain of this 21-year-old, these two ideas came together.

Boolean logic, Shannon realized, could be used to transform the art  of designing electrical circuits into something more formal. Instead of  starting from a qualitative description of a what a circuit needed to  accomplish, and then tinkering until you came up with a workable  solution, you could instead capture the goal as a logic equation, and  then apply algebraic rules to improve it, before finally translating  your abstract symbols back into concrete wires and resistors.

This insight was more than just a parlor trick. As Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman note in their fantastic 2017 biography, A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, “circuit design was, for the first time, a science.”  As Soni and Goodman elaborate, Shannon had done more than just simplify the job of wire-soldering engineers. He had also introduced a breakthrough idea: that metal and electron circuits could implement arbitrary logic. As Walter Isaacson summarized in The Innovators, “[this became] the basic concept underlying all digital computers.”


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