September 19, 2012

Claude Shannon's Mechanical Zoo

Portrait of Claude Elwood Shannon, courtesy of Fan Chung Graham.

It's time for some fun courtesy of Claude Shannon, the legend of Bell Labs. The father of information theory was also an inventor of great renown. These inventions did not lead to useful, everyday products, but did involve some incredible engineering. I ran across some classic footage on YouTube for two of these which is always fun to watch.

Above is a picture of his Juggling Diorama, a mechanical automaton built for the simulation of juggling [1]. It is a classic simulation in the sense that a reduced physical model of the process can help clarify the algorithmic and mathematical structure of juggling as a mental and physical process. To this end, Shannon also worked out a Juggling Theorem (an application of combinatorics), which is apparently reducible to a T-shirt slogan.

Shannon also designed small autonomous mechatronic rodents, pioneering the design of such devices years before similar research- and consumer-oriented application came to fruition. It is also a very early attempt at machine learning, based on cybernetic principles in fashion at the time.

The picture above is an example of a mechanical rodent he designed being put into a maze (a contraption called "Thesus"), some 40 years before the Khepera robot came on the scene [2]. For a comprehensive tour of past and present robots, mechatronic devices, and mechanical automata, visit [3].

[1] more on the science of juggling can be found here and here. And an overview on a German museum exhibit a few years back called Codes and Clowns.

[2] there are more stories about Shannon's mechanical rats roaming the halls of Bell Labs in the recently published book "The Idea Factory".

[3] quite an impressive overview of some really obscure technology. My favorite is the mechanical animal compendium.

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