In a video from the early 1950s, Bell Labs scientist Claude Shannon demonstrates one of his new inventions: a toy mouse named Theseus that looks like it could be a wind-up. The gaunt Shannon, looking a bit like Gary Cooper, stands next to a handsomely crafted tabletop maze and explains that Theseus (which Shannon pronounces with two syllables: “THEE-soose”) has been built to solve the maze. Through trial and error, the mouse finds a series of unimpeded openings and records the successful route. On its second attempt, Theseus follows the right path, error-free from start to finish.
Shannon then unveils the secret to Theseus’s success: a dense array of electrical relays, sourced from the Bell System’s trove of phone-switching hardware. It is the 1950s equivalent of a computer chip, but it’s about a thousand times bigger and only a millionth as powerful as today’s hardware.
Claude Shannon’s achievements were at the level of an Einstein or a Feynman, but he has not achieved commensurate fame.
While some scientists and engineers may have recognized Theseus as something important—a tidy and clever example of a thinking machine—many in Shannon’s audience probably dismissed the contraption as a fancy wind-up toy, or maybe a fraudulent automaton in the tradition of the chess-playing Turk.