Biggest Bit Player in 20th Century!

DATELINE: Changing the World


Imagine being one of the most important people to live in the 20th century and being unknown!

This documentary teases us with the notion that we are remiss to have missed Claude E. Shannon, the greatest inventor/scientist of the 20thcentury. He is called The Bit Player because he is the man who created ‘the bit” as part of the first “thinking machine.”

Yes. He’s right up there with Einstein, though no one has given him the time of day. His theoretics led to the iPhone, email, and all the other unquestioned intrusions into life. He rode a unicycle and juggled, and some thought he was a walking, breathing, thinking carnival barker.

Years ago we used to drive past his home in Winchester, Massachusetts, all the time, but only now do we recognize that a great man lived in that distinctive house. Had we known, we might have dropped in as unannounced as a text message from a stranger.

Eclectic, poetic, he was all you would never think was a scientist. He once invented a flaming trumpet for his high-school age son who was in a marching-band.

Growing up in the Midwest, he came to MIT after writing a stunning Master’s Thesis at age 21, years before Alan Turing’s seminal work. Shannon created codes, and in particular he made the binary code, and his two-number system meant that 1+1=1.  Uh-oh, that meant you were a nutcase in 1930.

Idiosyncratic sometimes makes you an academic pariah, but many of Shannon’s ideas were borderline science fiction and considered useless. If there was no personal PC, how could they be implemented or pragmatic?

How much call was there for a calculator that worked in Roman numerals? He loved to tinker and to let his mind wander the byways of opportunity, much like his pioneer grandfather.

When he spent a year at Princeton, Shannon used to wave every morning at Einstein as the genius walked to Princeton, but is vague about their meeting and interactions. He said he met Einstein but Einstein likely had no memory of meeting him.

It is characteristic of oddity in this biographical story.

With much derived from a filmed interview he gave late in life, we have evidence of a vibrant, ageless thinker that displays the power that must have been thwarted all too often in the earlier days of the 20thcentury.

This man gave Marshall McLuhan all the war and peace in the global village that he could muster. It’s always delightful to meet the most important people you never knew existed.