A Man in a Hurry: Claude Shannon’s New York Years
By day, Claude Shannon labored on top-secret war projects at Bell Labs. By night, he worked out the details of information theory…
By Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman (from IEEE Spectrum)
July 12, 2017
Looking back on the last months of 1940, Claude Shannon was quite open about his desire to avoid the World War II draft: “Things were moving fast there, and I could smell the war coming along. And it seemed to me I would be safer working full-time for the war effort, safer against the draft, which I didn’t exactly fancy. I was a frail man, as I am now…. I was trying to play the game, to the best of my ability. But not only that, I thought I’d probably contribute a hell of a lot more.”
Shannon’s opportunity to contribute came at Bell Labs, which took him on board as a government contractor, and then as a full-time employee. His work for the war effort brought him to the Labs’ headquarters in Manhattan’s West Village, a scientific smorgasbord: chemical labs, vast production rooms, and “a warren of testing labs for phones, cables, switches, cords, coils, and a nearly uncountable assortment of other essential parts,” as the eminent U.S. engineer Vannevar Bush later described it.
With a host of new wartime projects under way and hundreds of new faces streaming through the office, including many in military uniforms, the thirteen stories on the Hudson’s edge felt especially chaotic. Even as several hundred Labs employees departed for active-duty service in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Bell’s in-house workforce swelled: 4,600 employees became over 9,000 in only a matter of a few years. More than 1,000 research projects were launched, each one a small piece of the war machine. The tempo picked up accordingly, and many of Shannon’s colleagues found themselves working six days a week.
Bell Labs wasn’t alone in feeling the pressures of the war. Conflict overseas placed crushing new demands on much of the nation’s scientific elite and the institutions that housed them. There were urgent questions that needed answers, and the scientifically literate were uniquely equipped to answer them.
But unlike many of his contemporaries, Shannon made no special effort to climb the ladder of the national security bureaucracy. This wasn’t, as it might have been for some of his less-sought-after contemporaries, for lack of access. With Vannevar Bush as a trusted mentor and a résumé fat with fellowships and prestigious institutions, Shannon could have navigated his way to the high-government post of his choosing.
But he didn’t. If anything, his reaction to the war work was quite the opposite: The whole atmosphere left a bitter taste. The secrecy, the intensity, the drudgery, the obligatory teamwork—all of it seems to have gotten to him in a deeply personal way. Indeed, he found himself largely bored and frustrated by wartime projects, and the only outlet for his private research came on his own time, late at night. It’s telling that Shannon was reluctant, even decades later, to talk about this period in any kind of depth, even to family and friends. In a later interview, he would simply say, with a touch of disappointment in his words, that “those were busy times during the war and immediately afterwards and [my research] was not considered first priority work.”
His brief first marriage having ended in late 1940, Shannon was a bachelor again, with no attachments, a small Greenwich Village apartment, and a demanding job. His evenings, at least, were mostly his own. He kept odd hours, played music too loud, and relished the New York jazz scene. He went out late for raucous dinners and dropped by the chess clubs in Washington Square Park. He rode the A train up to Harlem to dance the jitterbug and take in shows at the Apollo. He went swimming at a pool in the Village and played tennis at the courts along the Hudson River’s edge. Once, he tripped over the tennis net, fell hard, and had to be stitched up.
His home, on the third floor of 51 West 11th Street, was a small New York studio. “There was a bedroom on the way to the bathroom. It was old. It was a boardinghouse…it was quite romantic,” recalled Maria Moulton, the downstairs neighbor. Perhaps somewhat predictably, Shannon’s space was a mess: dusty, disorganized, with the guts of a large music player he had taken apart strewn about on the center table. “In the winter it was cold, so he took an old piano he had and chopped it up and put it in the fireplace to get some heat.” His fridge was mostly empty, his record player and clarinet among the only prized possessions in the otherwise Spartan space. Claude’s apartment faced the street; the same apartment building housed Claude Levi-Strauss, the great anthropologist. Later, Levi-Strauss would find that his work was influenced by the work of his former neighbor, though the two rarely interacted while under the same roof.
Though the building’s live-in super and housekeeper, Freddy, thought Shannon morose and a bit of a loner, Shannon did befriend and date his neighbor Maria. They met when the volume of his music finally forced her to knock on his door; a friendship, and a romantic relationship, blossomed from her complaint.
Maria encouraged him to dress up and hit the town. “Now this is good!” he would exclaim when a familiar tune hit the radio on their drives. He read to her from James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, the latter his favorite author. He was, she remembered, preoccupied with the math problems he worked over in the evenings, and he was prone to writing down stray equations on napkins at restaurants in the middle of meals. He had few strong opinions about the war or politics, but many about this or that jazz musician. He had become interested in William Sheldon’s theories about body types and their accompanying personalities, and he looked to Sheldon to understand his own rail-thin (in Sheldon’s term, ectomorphic) frame.
Shannon’s wartime work brought him into contact with another giant of the digital age, Alan Turing. In 1942, Turing came to America as a part of a government-initiated tour of military encryption projects. The secrecy of the subject matter, the reputations of Turing and Shannon, and the atmosphere of the war has lent this meeting of the minds an air of intrigue and mystery. But there was nothing cloak-and-dagger about their interactions. According to Turing’s biographer Andrew Hodges, Shannon and Turing met daily over tea, in public, in the conspicuously modest Bell Labs cafeteria. Turing was envious, in a way, of Shannon’s multifaceted career: “Here [Turing] met a person who had been able to take the part of an academic, philosophical engineer, the role that Alan might have liked had the English system allowed for it.” Shannon, for his part, was amazed by the quality of Turing’s thinking. “I think Turing had a great mind, a very great mind,” Shannon later said.
A few Bell Labs colleagues became Shannon’s closest friends. One was Barney Oliver. Tall, with an easy smile and manner, he enjoyed scotch and storytelling. Oliver’s easygoing nature concealed an intense intellect: “Barney was an intellect in the genius range, with a purported IQ of 180,” recalled one colleague. His interests spanned heaven and earth—literally. In time, he would become one of the leaders of the movement in the search for extraterrestrial life. Tom Perkins, cofounder of the famed Kleiner Perkins venture capital firm, remembered Oliver’s ability to seize on a topic, no matter how obscure. “If the prospect of building devices to communicate with dolphins captured his fancy, that’s what he did for months on end,” Perkins recalled. He was the brains behind “Project Cyclops,” the “ingenious and noble albeit unfulfilled” plan to connect a thousand 100-meter satellite dishes across a 36-square-mile stretch of land with the goal of amplifying radio waves enough to detect interstellar chatter.
Oliver’s earthbound pursuits were equally ambitious. They included “the world’s first programmable desktop calculator,” its handheld offspring, and the first Hewlett-Packard computer. Oliver also held the distinction of being one of the few to hear about Shannon’s ideas before they ever saw the light of day. As he proudly recalled later, “We became friends and so I was the midwife for a lot of his theories. He would bounce them off me, you know, and so I understood information theory before it was ever published.” That might have been a mild boast on Oliver’s part, but given the few people Shannon let into even the periphery of his thinking, it was notable that Shannon talked with him about work at all.
John Pierce was another of the Bell Labs friends whose company Shannon shared in the off-hours. At the Labs, Pierce “had developed a wide circle of devoted admirers, charmed by his wit and his lively mind.” He was Shannon’s mirror image in his thin figure and height—and in his tendency to become quickly bored of anything that didn’t intensely hold his interest.
Shannon and Pierce were intellectual sparring partners in the way only two intellects of their kind could be. They traded ideas, wrote papers together, and shared countless books over the course of their tenures at Bell Labs. Pierce told Shannon on numerous occasions that “he should write up this or that idea.” To which Shannon is said to have replied, with characteristic insouciance, “What does ‘should’ mean?”
Oliver, Pierce, and Shannon—a genius clique, each secure enough in his own intellect to find comfort in the company of the others. They shared a fascination with the emerging field of digital communication and cowrote a key paper explaining its advantages in accuracy and reliability. One contemporary remembered this about the three Bell Labs wunderkinds:
It turns out that there were three certified geniuses at BTL [Bell Telephone Laboratories] at the same time, Claude Shannon of information theory fame, John Pierce, of communication satellite and traveling wave amplifier fame, and Barney. Apparently the three of those people were intellectually INSUFFERABLE. They were so bright and capable, and they cut an intellectual swath through that engineering community, that only a prestige lab like that could handle all three at once.
Other accounts suggest that Shannon might not have been so “insufferable” as he was impatient. His colleagues remembered him as friendly but removed. To Maria, he confessed a frustration with the more quotidian elements of life at the Labs. “I think it made him sick,” she said. “I really do. That he had to do all that work while he was so interested in pursuing his own thing.”
Partly, it seems, the distance between Shannon and his colleagues was a matter of sheer processing speed. In the words of Brockway McMillan, a Bell Labs colleague, “he had a certain type of impatience with the type of mathematical argument that was fairly common. He addressed problems differently from the way most people did, and the way most of his colleagues did…. It was clear that a lot of his argumentation was, let’s say, faster than his colleagues could follow.” What others saw as reticence, McMillan saw as a kind of ambient frustration: “He didn’t have much patience with people who weren’t as smart as he was.”
It gave him the air of a man in a hurry, perhaps too much in a hurry to be collegial. He was “a very odd man in so many ways…. He was not an unfriendly person,” observed David Slepian, another Labs researcher. Shannon’s response to colleagues who could not keep pace was simply to forget about them.
English philosopher George Henry Lewes once observed that “genius is rarely able to give an account of its own processes.” This seems to have been true of Shannon, who could neither explain himself to others, nor cared to. In his work life, he preferred solitude and kept his professional associations to a minimum. Robert Fano, a later collaborator of Shannon, said, “He was not someone who would listen to other people about what to work on.” One mark of this, some observed, was how few of Shannon’s papers were coauthored.
Shannon wouldn’t have been the first genius with an inward-looking temperament, but even among the brains of Bell Labs, he was a man apart. “He wouldn’t have been in any other department successfully…. You would knock on the door and he would talk to you, but otherwise, he kept to himself,” McMillan said. Slepian would put his apartness still more colorfully: “My characterization of his smartness is that he would have been the world’s best con man if he had taken a turn in that direction.” (“He would have taken that as a big compliment,” Shannon’s daughter later said.)
There was something else, too, something that might have kept him at a remove from even his close colleagues: Shannon was moonlighting. On the evenings he was at home, Shannon was at work on a private project. It had begun to crystallize in his mind in his graduate school days. He would, at various points, suggest different dates of provenance. But whatever the date on which the idea first implanted itself in his mind, pen hadn’t met paper in earnest until New York and 1941. Now this noodling was both a welcome distraction from work at Bell Labs and an outlet to the deep theoretical work he prized so much, and which the war threatened to foreclose. Reflecting on this time later, he remembered the flashes of intuition. The work wasn’t linear; ideas came when they came. “One night I remember I woke up in the middle of the night and I had an idea and I stayed up all night working on that.”
To picture Shannon during this time is to see a thin man tapping a pencil against his knee at absurd hours. This isn’t a man on a deadline; it’s something more like a man obsessed with a private puzzle, one that is years in the cracking. “He would go quiet, very, very quiet. But he didn’t stop working on his napkins,” said Maria. “Two or three days in a row. And then he would look up, and he’d say, ‘Why are you so quiet?’ ”
Napkins decorate the table, strands of thought and stray sections of equations accumulate around him. He writes in neat script on lined paper, but the raw material is everywhere. Eight years like this—scribbling, refining, crossing out, staring into a thicket of equations, knowing that, at the end of all that effort, they may reveal nothing. There are breaks for music and cigarettes, and bleary-eyed walks to work in the morning, but mostly it’s this ceaseless drilling. Back to the desk, where he senses, perhaps, that he is onto something significant.
Despite his dissatisfaction with defense work, Shannon had contributed to some important projects during the war and its immediate aftermath: projects in fire control, or the mechanization of antiaircraft artillery, and projects in cryptography that strengthened the secret transatlantic telephone line connecting FDR and Churchill.
But none of those projects had the impact of Shannon’s 1948 masterwork, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” [PDF]. It was Pierce who best summed it up: “It came as a bomb.” It was stunning in its scope—he had conceived of a new science nearly from scratch—and stunning in its surprise—he had gone years barely speaking a word of it to anyone. Shannon’s paper, published in two parts in the Bell System Technical Journal, elegantly distilled the insights about information and communication that he had spent nearly a decade working out.
Of course, information existed before Shannon, just as objects had inertia before Newton. But before Shannon, there was precious little sense of information as an idea, a measurable quantity, an object fitted out for hard science. Before Shannon, information was a telegram, a photograph, a paragraph, a song. After Shannon, information was entirely abstracted into bits. The sender no longer mattered, the intent no longer mattered, the medium no longer mattered, not even the meaning mattered: A phone conversation, a snatch of Morse telegraphy, a page from a detective novel were all brought under a common code. Just as geometers subjected a circle in the sand and the disk of the sun to the same laws, and as physicists subjected the sway of a pendulum and the orbits of the planets to the same laws, Claude Shannon made our world possible by getting at the essence of information.
Before the publication of his “Mathematical Theory of Communication,” scientists could track the movement of electrons in a wire, but the possibility that the very idea they stood for could be measured and manipulated just as objectively would have to wait until it was proved by Shannon. It was summed up in his recognition that all information, no matter the source, the sender, the recipient, or the meaning, could be efficiently represented by a sequence of bits: information’s fundamental unit.
Before the “Mathematical Theory of Communication,” a century of common sense and engineering trial and error said that noise—the physical world’s tax on our messages—had to be lived with. And yet Shannon proved that noise could be defeated, that information sent from Point A could be received with perfection at Point B, not just often, but essentially always. He gave engineers the conceptual tools to digitize information and send it flawlessly (or, to be precise, with an arbitrarily small amount of error), a result considered hopelessly utopian up until the moment Shannon proved it was not. Another engineer marveled, “How he got that insight, how he even came to believe such a thing, I don’t know.”
“Up until that time,” said Shannon’s colleague Robert Gallager, “everyone thought that communication was involved in trying to find ways of communicating written language, spoken language, pictures, video, and all of these different things—that all of these would require different ways of communicating. Claude said no, you can turn all of them into binary digits. And then you can find ways of communicating the binary digits.” You can code any message as a stream of bits, without having to know where it will go; you can transmit any stream of bits, efficiently and reliably, without having to know where it came from. As information theorist Dave Forney put it, “Bits are the universal interface.”
That insight is embedded in the circuits of our phones, our computers, our satellite TVs, our space probes still tethered to the earth with thin cords of 0s and 1s. In 1990, the Voyager 1 probe turned its camera back on Earth from the edge of the solar system, snapped a picture of our planetary home reduced in size to less than a single pixel—to what Carl Sagan called “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”—and transmitted that picture across 4 billion miles of void. Claude Shannon did not write the code that protected that image from error and distortion, but, some four decades earlier, he had proved that such a code must exist.
And so it did. It is part of his legacy; and so is the endless flow of digital information on which the Internet depends, and so is the information omnivory by which we define ourselves as modern.
This article is based on excerpts from A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age (Simon & Schuster, 2017).
About the Authors
Jimmy Soni is an author and former speechwriter. Rob Goodman is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and former speechwriter. The two wrote the 2012 book Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar. A Mind at Play, from which this article is excerpted, is their second collaboration.
This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on July 12, 2017.