Study Hacks Blog

The Bit Player Who Changed the World

July 29th, 2020 · 14 comments

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.”

Shannon published these leaps in his master’s thesis, which he gave an unassuming title, “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.” Nearly seventy years later, as I was writing my own masters thesis at MIT, Shannon’s shadow still loomed large.

I’m recounting this story for two reasons. First, I’m a fan of Shannon, and think he doesn’t get enough credit. His contributions arguably dwarf those of his contemporary, Alan Turing, who Shannon later briefly met when their wartime cryptanalysis efforts overlapped.

Second, and more specifically, I bring him up because a brand new documentary about Shannon, called The Bit Player, was just released on Amazon Prime. It’s directed by Mark Levinson, whose work I admire, and is based in part on the book by Soni and Goodman that I also admire. Needless to say, I’m excited to watch it, and thought many of you might be as well.

14 thoughts on “The Bit Player Who Changed the World

  1. Viktor says:

    I appreciate the references to computer science themes. I’m taking a database course this fall, my last semester, and I believe we will have a few run-ins with Boolean algebra! I understand you try to cover a wide range of topics for all working professionals but would love to see a book, few articles, or podcasts devoted to deep work for all things computer science. Notwithstanding desires, you do a wonderful job-my life has been changed in many ways as a result of your books! Currently reading “so good they can’t ignore you.” I love it.

    1. Cruz says:

      Belle Delphine has a great series on database management and its contribution to productivity, worth checking out.

  2. Mark Payne says:

    It’s also a really good example of the “adjacent possible”, which is where I thought you were going with this post!

  3. Doug says:

    There is a good interview with the author here, https://embedded.fm/episodes/221
    I picked up the book based on the interview above. I just started reading the past two nights. It took a while to get onto the top of the book pile.

  4. Carl says:

    “–Wire soldering engineers..” It’s occasionally the engineers, but usually the technicians or wireman that do the soldering for the engineers. I did this work for many years. It was one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I still solder. Have a setup in my study at my house. Thought it would be good for boys to see it. Though was distressed that I had to buy reading glasses to see the wires…

  5. Stephen Ivey says:

    You state “His contributions arguably dwarf those of his contemporary, Alan Turing….” It depends on how you define contributions. If one of those is to develop the Bombe, a code deciphering machine that broke the German Enigma to shorten a world war and save many lives, I would give the edge to Turing.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      To play devil’s advocate: the idea of using electromechanical circuits to help iterate through code-breaking sequences predated Turing. He was improving a design innovated by the Poles. Then Welchman improved Turing’s design.

      Though I’ll say, I’ve seen in person both German Enigma machines and large sections of the Turing’s actual Bombe: very impressive.

      But Shannon basically paved the way for computers. More so, arguably, than Turing (though I teach Turing’s theory extensively, and really appreciate it). So a pretty good legacy.

  6. JR says:

    Finally the heroic work of scientists and engineers is getting some attention by “Hollywood” by the maverick studio at Amazon. Instead of fanning over athletes with money and fame for another goal that helps nobody in society; society should recognize the contribution by scientists and engineers who actually help everyone in important ways.

    I was in a Popular Science magazine article but the article did not mention the pain and cost to my person. I could have died from an ulcer caused by the stress of the project and the project cost me four years of my life. Anyway, I got to talk to the Clinton administration’s cabinet official and provided a partial solution to climate change.

  7. Jesse says:

    I’ll check out the book and doc. Thanks for the article.

  8. Rohan Joshi says:

    Nice. Shannon is an amazing figure in the history of science. His discovery seems simple on the face of it, but probably required considerable ingenuity to come up with. Makes you wonder what other simple world-changing ideas are out there.

    By the way, this reminded me of this excerpt from Gian-Carlo Rota’s Indiscrete Thoughts:

    “But what Elliott Mendelson [author’s of Schaum’s Outline of Boolean Algebra] realizes, and what most textbooks withhold, is that one of the best ways, perhaps *the* best way, of understanding Boolean algebra is through visualization by switching circuits. Important discoveries in Boolean algebra were made by mathematicians (such as Claude Shannon in his celebrated master’s thesis) who visualized “and” and “or” by switching circuits.” (Rota 241)

    (I highly recommend the rest of section, where Rota sings praise of Schaum’s Outlines and rails against formal mathematics textbooks)

  9. Raphaelle says:

    Unfortunately, “The Bit Player” isn’t available on Amazon Prime in France. I hope it will be soon.

    1. Deb says:

      Use a VPN or Tor

  10. I loved the book, but I couldn’t make it through the documentary. It just seem cheesy to me. They have an actor playing Shannon in a fake interview, it just sort of made my skin crawl.

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