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Claude Shannon (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

In the 1960s a popular phrase was Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message." Yet at least twenty years before McLuhan's aphorism an electrical engineer had disproved it.

The engineer, Claude Shannon, who died recently, used mathematics to separate the medium from the message. Today we hear talk of bandwidth, and digital phones, and fast lines to connect to the internet.

It all began in 1948 when Shannon showed that all messages could be represented by just two numbers - zero and one - the binary form of data which is so popular now that we all have computers. He was even the first to use the word "bit" in print. It's a contraction of the first two letters of "binary" and the last letter of "digit."

He used very eloquent and even beautiful mathematics to show how many of these bits were needed to send information through a channel.

By channel he meant anything: a copper wire, smoke signals, a fiber optic cable, and even the electromagnetic waves that travel through the air to your television or radio. By breaking a message into these bits he could distinigush the message from the medium and allow other engineers to focus on the message itself, without being concerned if it were, say, voice, data or telegraph. Using his theories they could design a channel of just the right size to transmit a message without errors.

For a man who made it posible for information to flow around the world Claude Shannon was suprisingly reclusive. He worked alone at Bell Labs in New Jersey, usually keeping his door shut. Emerging only at night to ride his unicycle down the halls, ocassionaly even juggling while on the bike. At times he'd appear with some bizarre invention: a two-seated unicycle, juggling robots, a motorized pogo-stick, chess-playing machines, or a rocket-powered Frisbee. He devoted much of his later years to developing a mechanical mouse. Fitted with copper whiskers, a magnet and wheels. It could find its way through a maze. Most intriguing, though, to his colleagues was a mathemtical system he designed to analyze the stock market. He made a handsome profit, but the details of his methods remain unpublished.

In a sad irony Claude Shannon, who brought information to the world, was unable to communicate toward the end of his life. He suffered from Alzheimer's disease. But his theories live on. They've allowed engineers to bring us digitial phones, high-speed internet lines, and the flawless audio and video we expect of compact discs and DVDs.

Although Claude Shannon helped connect the globe he still didn't share everything with us. He took to his grave his design for a rocket-powered frisbee.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises