His name has faded in our era, but in mid-20th century America, Claude Elwood Shannon of Bell Telephone Laboratories was a bona fide scientific star. In 1954, for example, Fortune featured Shannon in a list of the nation’s 20 most important scientists, alongside future Nobel Laureates Richard Feynman and James Watson, among others. Shannon also made the pages of Time and Life magazines, appeared on national television, and even earned a spread in Vogue, complete with a photo shoot by the renowned Henri Cartier-Bresson.
There was ample reason for the acclaim. Shannon’s landmark 1948 paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” launched the field of information theory, and his stunning MIT master’s thesis proved that binary circuits could perform logic. Together, the two papers formed the basis for the digital age. And he wasn’t just a theorist: Theseus, an “artificially intelligent” mouse Shannon built, garnered national attention as an early example of a thinking machine.