Ask anyone to name the origin of digital communications, and you’d probably get answers ranging from Apple, Microsoft, IBM, and maybe even Xerox. All excellent guesses, but way off the mark. The origin of digital communication took place decades before Jobs and Gates founded their respective companies. Most information theorists place that important date in the year 1937. During that year, which by the way predates WWII, a 21-year old masters degree student named Claude Shannon wrote a theses entitled A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.
Shannon’s thesis didn’t make the best seller list. But it did catch the attention of some technological heavyweights, who realized that therein lied a breakthrough of astronomical proportions. In a nutshell, the paper presents the idea of a system of microcircuitry transmitting data utilizing logical choices to either open or close a given circuit. Without this paper, there would be no logic circuits, and therefore no computers.
What’s particularly intriguing about the birth of logic circuitry is its creative foundation. Shannon essentially combined his interest in Boolean Algebra, logic, and electronic communications to conceive a system that was a synthesis of all three.
But wait, there’s more. While working at Bell Labs, following a stint doing cryptanalysis during WWII, Shannon developed a process for encoding messages with a system of binary digits consisting of ones and zeroes – bits and their larger grouping bytes. Sound familiar? The process, presented in his 1953 paper entitled A Mathematical Theory of Communication, propelled the world into the digital age. Providing a theoretical basis for everything digital, it offered a coding roadmap to future legions of programmers.
Thus, on one hand Claude Shannon developed the foundation of digital circuity, and on the other, created the coding system that gave that circuitry something important to do. Like send text messages.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that without Shannon’s theoretical insights, the development of digital technology might have been delayed by decades – if not longer. Which means we’d probably still all be pounding away on typewriters, sharing vacation photos via U.S. mail, dumping precious coinage into pay phone slots, and shopping in overcrowded brick and mortar stores. Not to mention the thousands of digital marketers who’d be painting billboards Monday through Friday.
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