The Essential Message: Claude Shannon and the Making of Information Theory

In 1948, Claude Shannon, a young engineer and mathematician working at the Bell Telephone Laboratories, published “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” a seminal paper that marked the birth of information theory. In that paper, Shannon defined what the once fuzzy concept of “information” meant for communication engineers and proposed a precise way to quantify it-in his theory, the fundamental unit of information is the bit. He also showed how data could be “compressed” before transmission and how virtually error-free communication could be achieved. The concepts Shannon developed in his paper are at the heart of today’s digital information technology. CDs, DVDs, cell phones, fax machines, modems, computer networks, hard drives, memory chips, encryption schemes, MP3 music, optical communication, high-definition television-all these things embody many of Shannon’s ideas and others inspired by him. But despite the importance of his work and its influence on everyday life, Claude Shannon is still unknown to most people. Many papers, theses, books, and articles on information theory have been published, but none have explored in detail and in accessible language aimed at a general audience what the theory is about, how it changed the world of communication, and-most importantly-what path led Shannon to his revolutionary ideas. “The Essential Message” presents an account of the making of information theory based on papers, letters, interviews with Shannon and his colleagues, and other sources. It describes the context in which Shannon was immersed, the main ideas in his 1948 paper-and the reaction to it-and how his theory shaped the technologies that changed one of the most fundamental activities in our lives: communication.



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