Sightseeing in Northern Michigan: Claude Shannon

If you like the internet, your cell phone, television or computer, you have a Northern Michigan native to thank.

Claude Shannon would be 100 years old this weekend.

In this week’s Sightseeing in Northern Michigan, we take a look at why everyone should celebrate.

In downtown Gaylord sits the bust of Claude Shannon, probably the most famous person you’ve never heard of.

“Claude Shannon is a famous native son of Gaylord, Michigan,” says Keith Moore, Otsego County Historical Society. “A boy who grew up at the turn of the century from 1916 to 1932 and then actually changed the course of history.”

Our modern world may be very different if it weren’t for Claude Shannon.

“He’s an inventor, a juggler and kind of a humorous guy, but most importantly for us today, he’s the founder of the theories which led to the digital communications revolution. So we would not have laptops, we would not have the internet, we would not have pictures from Mars, all because of zeros and ones that were able to be communicated,” explains Jim Akans, Otsego County Historical Society.

As a kid, Claude was a tinkerer. He even created his own little communication network.

“He had a friend who lived down the block and he had developed a telegraph system between his house and his friend’s house utilizing barbed wire, so he was always thinking,” says Jim.

Claude graduated from Gaylord a year early. At U of M, he got his degrees in mathematics and electrical engineering.

“It was in 1938 he got his Masters from MIT and he wrote a paper, and today, some say it’s the greatest master thesis of the 20th century,” says Keith. “He was taking Boolean algebra, his mathematical background, and applying it to relay circuits, his engineering background. He wasn’t building on theory he was creating it. He was founding it.”

The paper he wrote in 1948 was the real game-changer.

“In 1948, he wrote the mathematical theory on communication. From that he said, ‘you need to understand that all information can be communicated mathematically’. That’s where we get bits, that’s where we get binary,” explains Keith. “People referred to that as the Magna Carta of the digital age. That paper changed the course of human history.”

Claude’s daughter, Peggy wrote the Otsego County Historical Society a letter describing her father.

“Some words I would use to describe my father are playful, resourceful, curious, confident, insightful, practical, shy, great sense of humor and often lost in thought.”

Keith says, “Lots of stories about him riding his unicycle down the hallways of Bell Labs while he’s juggling as he’s thinking. People enjoyed him.”

This Saturday Claude Shannon would have turned 100 years old.  Many countries will be celebrating, especially his hometown of Gaylord. This weekend you can "Applaud Claude" at the Otsego County Museum.

“He’s one of the most interesting men and one of the most important men that you never knew. So come down and find out about him and get to know Claude,” says Jim.