Chickens and Goats

In 1937, Claude Shannon changed the world forever when he published his master's thesis, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.

It's widely considered among the most important masters theses of the century, and for good reason: By combining Boolean algebra (which breaks down problems into true/false variables and operators like and/or) and circuit design, Shannon demonstrated that a series of circuits could solve math problems.

If that sounds like a primitive computer to you, you're correct. This insight forms part of the bedrock of modern computers and helped usher in the entire field of information theory.

Jimmy Soni & Rob Goodman write in their extraordinary biography of Shannon, A Mind at Play:

[B]ecause Boole had shown how to resolve logic into a series of binary, true-false decisions, any system capable of representing binaries has access to the entire logical universe he described. “The laws of thought” had been extended to the inanimate world. [Emphasis added]

Today, we take for granted the idea that information can be conveyed regardless of its medium through a series of ones and zeroes (i.e. true and false statements).

You could even, given enough time, transmit the entirety of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 to someone half a mile away by tossing chickens and goats off a bridge. If the person on shore understood that chickens = true and goats = false, they could eventually reconstruct an entire recording of the piece.

Claude Shannon was unquestionably a genius. And his discovery follows a familiar pattern. Here's Andy Benoit writing about Peyton Manning for Vault:

[M]ost geniuses—especially those who lead others—prosper not by deconstructing intricate complexities but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.

Like so many insights, the idea that circuits could be designed to represent Boolean algebra seems simple, even obvious, now.

But no one had fully articulated it before Shannon took the work of an obscure logician and paired it with electrical currents.

In doing so, he paved the way for the digital revolution and the Information Age.

See also: Latticework of Ideas


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