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· Claude Shannon, reading the messages hot off the wire.

By ANTHONY GRAFTON [Washington Post] – In 1947, the radio producer Dan Golenpaul issued the first Information Please Almanac. In 1938, he had started the popular radio quiz show “Information Please.” Listeners submitted questions, which a panel of performers, newspapermen and writers had to answer quickly and wittily. Those who stumped the panel received small cash prizes (or, in the early 1940s, war bonds). The Almanac, which traded on the show’s popularity but did not rival its comic flair, compressed a vast number of facts about American government, history and geography, official statistics and popular culture into a single book. That was what information meant in the late ’40s to pretty much everyone from high school debaters to professional journalists (my family included both, and they fought over each year’s Almanac).

In 1948, as James Gleick shows in his rich and fascinating new book [The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood], Claude Shannon transformed information into something completely different. As a boy, Shannon had turned the barbed wire fences of Michigan farms into an electrical telegraph system, scrounging parts and attaching batteries so that he could tap out messages to a friend who lived half a mile away. As a Bell Labs scientist, he argued that information was not composed of meaning or facts, but of messages, and he showed how in a rigorous mathematical theory. All messages, he demonstrated, could be broken down into bits, or binary digits. His theory explained how much information each character in a message conveyed and showed how to make the characters easier to send or to interpret.

Continued at the Washington Post | More Chronicle & Notices.

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