How Information Got Re-Invented


Illustration by Jessica Lin/NAUTILUS
The story behind the birth of the information age.

By Jimmy Soni & Rob Goodman | NAUTILUS

With his marriage to Norma Levor over, Claude Shannon was a bachelor again, with no attachments, a small Greenwich Village apartment, and a demanding job. His evenings were mostly his own, and if there’s a moment in Shannon’s life when he was at his most freewheeling, this was it. 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 Eleventh 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 high volume of his music finally forced her to knock on his door; a friendship, and a romantic relationship, blossomed from her complaint.

Claude Shannon. Image: NAUTILUS

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 would find these common denominators between the musicians he liked and the ones I liked,” she remembered. 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.

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