MIT Museum Displays Computer Pioneer Claude Shannon's Ingenious Machines

October 18, 2007

CAMRIDGE, Mass.—The first artificial intelligence mouse to navigate a maze, and a mechanical W.C. Fields that pays tribute to the actor's days as a vaudeville juggler, are among the whimsical devices and contraptions that recently joined the MIT Museum's collection of historical artifacts from the 19th to the 21st century, and are now on display in the new Mark Epstein Innovation Gallery.

The dozen or so devices are the brainchildren of late MIT professor Claude E. Shannon. Best known as the father of digital communications and information theory, Shannon built the maze, juggler, and a dozen other mind-bogglingly clever inventions in his home workshop, from around 1950 to the mid-1980s. "We're greatly honored to receive this unique collection," said Professor John Durant, director of the MIT Museum. "For the most part, these intriguing objects were invented by Claude Shannon for his own amusement; but in addition to being great fun, they give vivid testimony to the creative genius of one of the true pioneers of information science and technology in the 20th century. The MIT Museum is privileged to be acquiring these objects, and we look forward to showcasing them for our visitors alongside many other technologies--for example, in artificial intelligence and robotics--that incorporate the fundamental principles Shannon discovered."

Assembled from Erector and Meccano sets, sprockets, gears, relays, and random bits of hardware, the items were donated by Shannon's family in January 2007.

Shannon, who died in 2001, was MIT's Donnor Professor of Science from 1958-1978, when he became professor emeritus. A distant relative of Thomas Edison, Shannon was affiliated with New Jersey's Bell Laboratories in 1948 when he wrote a landmark paper that proposed that all data communication could be reduced to ones and zeroes.

Shannon's revolutionary idea underlies today's information age, including the use of bits in computer storage for pictures, voice streams and other data. "Ones and zeroes shape our lives today as surely as DNA does; the institutions of our societies could as little function without digital information as our bodies could function without oxygen," the University of Munich's Center for Applied Policy Research wrote in 2000.

During World War II, Shannon, a noted cryptographer, worked on secrecy systems at Bell Labs. His work on communication theory is credited with transforming cryptography from an art to a science.

In his spare time, Shannon—an amateur juggler and unicyclist--combined his keen intellect, mechanical ability and formidable wit to create clever devices. "It's amazing how much these inventions reveal about Claude Shannon as a scholar and human being, and how deeply they resonate within the MIT community. Agility of mind, brilliance and quirkiness are qualities MIT deeply cherishes," said Deborah Douglas, curator of science and technology for the MIT Museum.

Among Shannon's creations acquired by the museum are:

  • Mouse and maze, dubbed "Theseus" for the legendary king of Athens, was the first learning device of its kind. Created in 1950, its magnetic life-sized mouse--controlled by a relay circuit-- moves around a metal table-top maze that hid the mouse's "brain." The mouse searches the flexible configurations of corridors until it finds the target. Then, placed anywhere it had been before, the mouse can go directly to the target. If placed in unfamiliar territory, it is programmed to search until it reaches a known location, and then it proceeds to the target, adding new knowledge to its memory.
  • Chess machine. In 1950, Shannon published a groundbreaking paper on computer chess titled "Programming a Computer for Playing Chess." The invention called "Endgame" soon followed. Preceding IBM's Deep Blue by some four decades, it was a groundbreaking machine built to play chess, although Shannon was limited to demonstrating the final few moves because of the lack of programming power of the time.
  • The Little Juggling Clowns. A black-lit, mechanical diorama of three 5-inch-tall fluorescent jugglers—Ignatov, who tosses 11 rings in a cascade pattern; Rastelli, whose 10 balls circle in an alternating fountain pattern; and Virgoaga, whose seven clubs do triple spins—is called the "The Little Juggling Clowns." "How is all this magic wrought?" Shannon wrote in Juggling World magazine in 1982. "With a bag of cheap scientific tricks and a fiendishly ingenious backstage mechanism."
  • THROBAC, a desk calculator operating entirely with Roman numerals.
  • Game-playing machines, including "Hex(hox) and "Nimwit."
  • A 3-foot-high mechanical W.C. Fields that juggles balls by bouncing them onto a drum.

See also the MIT News Office story, with photos of some of Shannon's machines

View MIT Museum's online collections