05/12/2021

010 – Running circuits – 1937

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I visualise a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans,
and I’m rooting for the machines.  Claude Shannon

Claude E Shannon from Michigan was employed at Bell Labs while attending MIT.  In August 1937, while working with the institute’s differential analyser, he wrote a thesis ‘A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits’.  It has been described as ‘ …possibly the most important, and also the most famous, master’s thesis of the century.’

In it he demonstrated how Boolean algebra and binary arithmetic could be used to define and simplify electromechanical digital circuit design.

George Boole lived in Lincoln, England in the 19th century.  His work on differential equations and calculus led to the definition of the algebraic system of logic that took his name – Boolean logic. It was long after his death and as a result of Shannon’s thesis that his work earned him the sobriquet, the ‘founder of computer science’.

In fact a few years before Shannon’s thesis and a continent away at Moscow State University, Victor Shestakov had also investigated the application of Boolean logic to electric switching.  He showed how it could be used to define two-pole, three-pole and four-pole switching. 

However this material was delayed by the Soviet establishment approvals system and not published until 1941.

Shannon and Shestakov paved the way for digital computers. 

Based upon Claude Shannon’s work with Boolean logic, George Robert Stibitz, also at Bell Labs, developed digital circuits and created a single-bit binary adder using relays. 

1937  He designed a calculator known as the Model K.  The K stood for kitchen as he had assembled it on his kitchen table.  A replica is still on show at the Smithsonian.  This early work convinced Bell Labs to fund a the Model I, a Complex Number Calculator three years later; run by Stibitz.

Shannon went on to join the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton where he brushed shoulders with Albert Einstein and John von Neumann while working on theoretical genetics.  In 1940 he was given the Alfred Noble American Institute of American Engineers’ Award and was described as the ‘father of information theory’. 

In WWII at Bell Labs he worked on cryptography, meeting with Alan Turing, the two found their 30s papers to be complementary.  But Shannon was permitted to publish his wartime work, while Turing’s efforts remained secret.  Shannon’s 1948 paper ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’ was his seminal publication, considered by many as a building block of all modern devices.

His ‘Ultimate Machine’ was a box with one switch, if activated a mechanical hand emerged to flick the switch off!

1961  Shannon devised the Minivac 601 Digital Computer Kit, a device aimed at the educational market. 

Using electromechanical relays, at $85 educational establishments used it to teach binary arithmetic.  The Scientific Development Corp. simply changed the colour, made the switches a little more businesslike and raised the price to $479!

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