Enter the maze

Claude Shannon: Inventing for the fun of it

Mouse in a maze: From www.istockphoto.com

Claude Shannon, inventor of the rocket powered Frisbee, gasoline powered pogo stick, a calculator that worked using roman numerals, and discoverer of the fundamental equation of juggling! Oh yeah, and founder of the most important theory underpinning all digital communication: information theory.

Claude Shannon is perhaps one of the most important engineers of the 20th century, but he did it for fun. Though his work changed the world, he was always playing with and designing things, simply because it amused him. Like his contemporary Richard Feynman, he did it for 'the pleasure of finding things out.'

As a boy, Claude liked to build model planes and radio-controlled boats. He once built a telegraph system to a friend's house half a mile away, though he got in trouble for using the barbed wires around a nearby pasture. He earned pocket money delivering telegrams and repairing radios.

He went to the University of Michigan, and then worked on his Masters at MIT. While there, he thought that the logic he learned in his maths classes could be applied to the electronic circuits he studied in engineering. This became his Masters thesis, published in 1938. It was described as 'one of the most important Master's theses ever written... helped to change digital circuit design from an art to a science.'

Claude Shannon is known for his serious research, but a lot of his work was whimsical. He invented a calculator called THROBAC (Thrifty Roman numerical BACkward looking computer), that performs all its operations in the Roman numeral system. His home was full of mechanical turtles that would wander around, turning at obstacles; a gasoline-powered pogostick and rocket-powered Frisbee; a machine that juggled three balls with two mechanical hands; a machine to solve the Rubik's cube; and the 'Ultimate Machine', which was just a box that when turned on, would make an angry, annoyed sound, reach out a hand and turn itself off. As Claude once explained with a smile, 'I've spent lots of time on totally useless things.'

A lot of the early psychology experiments used to involve getting a mouse to run through a maze to reach some food at the end. By performing these experiments over and over in different ways, they could figure out how a mouse learns. So Claude built a mouse-shaped robot called Theseus. Theseus could search a maze until he solved it, and then use this knowledge to find its way through the maze from any starting point.

Oh, and there's one other paper of his that needs mentioning. No, not the one on the science of juggling, or even the one describing his 'mind reading' machine. In 1948 he published 'A mathematical theory of communication.' Quite simply, this changed the world, and changed how we think about information. It laid the groundwork for a lot of important theory used in developing modern cryptography, satellite navigation, mobile phone networks... and the internet.