Friday, August 13, 2010

Shannon and information theory

Up to and during the 1930s, electrical engineers were able to build electronic circuits to solve mathematical and logic problems, but most did so in an ad hoc manner, lacking any theoretical rigor. This changed with Claude Elwood Shannon's publication of his 1937 master's thesis, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits. While taking an undergraduate philosophy class, Shannon had been exposed to Boole's work, and recognized that it could be used to arrange electromechanical relays (then used in telephone routing switches) to solve logic problems. This concept, of utilizing the properties of electrical switches to do logic, is the basic concept that underlies all electronic digital computers, and his thesis became the foundation of practical digital circuit design when it became widely known among the electrical engineering community during and after World War II.

Shannon went on to found the field of information theory with his 1948 paper titled A Mathematical Theory of Communication, which applied probability theory to the problem of how to best encode the information a sender wants to transmit. This work is one of the theoretical foundations for many areas of study, including data compression and cryptography.

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