Insights on work and creativity from the life of mathematician Claude Shannon, the most influential figure you’ve never heard of
For five years, we lived with one of the most brilliant people on the planet.
See, we spent those all-consuming five years writing our biography of American mathematician Claude Shannon, whose work in the 1930s and ’40s earned him the title of “father of the information age.” That’s how long it took us to understand the influence of the most important genius you’ve never heard of, a man whose intellect was on par with that of Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.
During that time, we spent more time with the deceased Claude Shannon than we have with many of our living friends. He became something like the roommate in the spare bedroom of our minds, the guy who was always hanging around and occupying our headspace.
Geniuses have a unique way of engaging with the world, and if you spend enough time examining their habits, you discover the behaviors behind their brilliance. Whether or not we intended it to, understanding Claude Shannon’s life gave us lessons on how to better live our own.
That’s what follows in this essay. It’s the good stuff our roommate left behind.
His name may not ring a bell. Don’t worry—we initially didn’t know much about him, either.
So, who was Claude Shannon?
Within engineering and mathematics circles, Shannon is a revered figure. At 21, he published what’s been called the most important master’s thesis of all time, explaining how binary switches could do logic and laying the foundation for all future digital computers. At the age of 32, he published A Mathematical Theory of Communication, which Scientific American called “the Magna Carta of the information age.” Shannon’s masterwork invented the bit, or the objective measurement of information, and explained how digital codes could allow us to compress and send any message with perfect accuracy.
But Shannon wasn’t just a brilliant theoretical mind — he was a remarkably fun, practical, and inventive one as well. There are plenty of mathematicians and engineers who write great papers. There are fewer who, like Shannon, are also jugglers, unicyclists, gadgeteers, first-rate chess players, codebreakers, expert stock pickers, and amateur poets.
Shannon worked on the top-secret transatlantic phone line connecting FDR and Winston Churchill during World War II and co-built what was arguably the world’s first wearable computer. He learned to fly airplanes and played the jazz clarinet. He rigged up a false wall in his house that could rotate with the press of a button, and he once built a gadget whose only purpose when it was turned on was to open up, release a mechanical hand, and turn itself off. Oh, and he once had a photo spread in Vogue.
Think of him as a cross between Albert Einstein and the Dos Equis guy. [ … ]