Claude Shannon: Navigating The Maze of Mechanical Memory
The difference between genius and obsession is often a close call.
Claude Shannon, the subject of a career retrospective opening next week at the German Computer Museum in Paterborn, demonstrated the kind of infinite technical curiosity that would propel his most inspired work, at its most applied and esoteric. “I’ve spent lots of time,” he once said, “on totally useless things.”
In 1952, Time magazine visited Shannon and his mechanical mouse, Theseus, in Murray Hill, New Jersey at the Bell Telephone Laboratories.
Shannon, who, in the dry summary of the MIT Museum (Shannon eventually ended up teaching at MIT), “wrote a landmark paper that proposed that all data communication could be reduced to ones and zeroes,” was also known for whimsical and ingenious machines, combining eccentricity with technical brilliance in exploration of an idea. Time reported:
Bell Telephone’s labyrinth is about half as big as a desk top and is fitted with aluminum partitions which can be shifted around among 40 different slots. Theseus himself has only a mouse-shaped wooden body, three small wheels and whiskers of copper wire. Inside him is nothing but a bar-magnet. His brains are outside him, under the floor of the labyrinth. They are a complicated array of relays.
At the Bell Laboratories, after Theseus’s first halting attempt to navigate the labyrinth—“He blunders around, bumping his copper whiskers against the aluminum walls,” the mouse makes a second attempt, this time moving with confident speed through the maze.
Theseus in the last analysis isn’t much of a mouse. The explanation for his smart behavior lies in the relays, which move him around by means of a motor-driven magnet. They remember all his successful moves. So when he makes his second trip, the relays whisk him without an error along the correct path.
Dr. Shannon has a good time with Theseus and seems much attached to him, but he did not create the mouse and his labyrinth just for fun. They are useful in studying telephone switching systems, which are very like labyrinths. In effect, each telephone call is a mouse that has to find its way to the cheese (the called telephone) in the shortest possible time.
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