Father of digital communications dies

Claude E. Shannon, viewed by some as the father of digital communications and information theory, died this past Saturday. He was 84.

Shannon, who was a distant relative of Thomas Edison, is best known for his paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which has been credited with assisting in the evolution of modern telecommunications, the Internet, compact-disc and satellite technology. He developed the theory while working as a mathematician at Bell Laboratories, which is now part of Lucent Technologies Inc., from 1941 to 1972.

His theory assisted with separating the technical problem of delivering a message from understanding what a message means. It helped determine the most efficient encoding of a message for an abstract model of communications, both digital and analog, according to several biographical articles on him that have appeared this week.

He theorized that the information content of a message consists simply of the number of 1s and 0s it takes to transmit it, explains a statement from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) issued on Tuesday. This led to new communication technology and now all communication lines are measured in bits per second. The theory also assisted with using bits for computer storage, according to MIT.

His work helped coin the phrase “bit” of information to mean a single unit of information processed by a computer. A bit came from the first two and the last letter of “binary digits,” according to several articles.

And with this work, he developed the concept of an entropy rate, which measured a source’s information-production rate and a measure of the information-carrying capacity, known as the communication channel capacity. This fact has been crucial in modern modem design, according to the articles.

In 1956, Shannon became a visiting professor at MIT. He stayed on at MIT until 1978, according to the university.