Many of Claude Shannon’s off-the-clock creations were whimsical—a machine that made sarcastic remarks, for instance, or the Roman numeral calculator. Others created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and father of information theory showed a flair for the dramatic and dazzling: the trumpet that spit flames or the machine that solved Rubik’s cubes. Still other devices he built anticipated real technological innovations by more than a generation. One in particular stands out, not just because it was so far ahead of its time, but because of just how close it came to landing Shannon in trouble with the law—and the mob.
Long before the Apple Watch or the Fitbit, what was arguably the world’s first wearable computer was conceived by Ed Thorp, then a little-known graduate student in physics at the University of California, Los Angeles. Thorp was the rare physicist who felt at home with both Vegas bookies and bookish professors. He loved math, gambling, and the stock market, roughly in that order. The tables and the market he loved for the challenge: Could you create predictability out of seeming randomness? What could give one person an edge in games of chance? Thorp wasn’t content just pondering these questions; like Shannon, he set out to find and build answers.
In 1960, Thorp was a junior professor at MIT. He had been working on a theory for playing blackjack, the results of which he hoped to publish in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Shannon was the only academy member in MIT’s mathematics department, so Thorp sought him out. “The secretary warned me that Shannon was only going to be in for a few minutes, not to expect more, and that he didn’t spend time on subjects (or people) that didn’t interest him. Feeling awed and lucky, I arrived at Shannon’s office to find a thinnish, alert man of middle height and build, somewhat sharp featured,” Thorp recalled.
Thorp had piqued Shannon’s interest with the blackjack paper, to which Shannon recommended only a change of title, from “A Winning Strategy for Blackjack” to the more mundane “A Favorable Strategy for Twenty-One,” the better to win over the academy’s staid reviewers. The two shared a love of putting math in unfamiliar territory in search of chance insights. After Shannon “cross-examined” Thorp about his blackjack paper, he asked, “Are you working on anything else in the gambling area?”
Thorp confessed. “I decided to spill my other big secret and told him about roulette. Ideas about the project flew between us. Several exciting hours later, as the wintery sky turned dusky, we finally broke off with plans to meet again on roulette.” As one writer, William Poundstone, put it, “Thorp had inadvertently set one of the century’s great minds on yet another tangent.”
Thorp was immediately invited to Shannon’s house. The basement, Thorp remembered, was “a gadgeteer’s paradise. … There were hundreds of mechanical and electrical categories, such as motors, transistors, switches, pulleys, gears, condensers, transformers, and on and on.” Thorp was in awe: “Now I had met the ultimate gadgeteer.”
What impressed him more than any of the gadgets was his host’s uncanny ability to “see” a solution to a problem rather than to muscle it out with unending work.
It was in this tinkerer’s laboratory that they set out to understand how roulette could be gamed, ordering “a regulation roulette wheel from Reno for $1,500,” a strobe light, and a clock whose hand revolved once per second. Thorp was given inside access to Shannon in all his tinkering glory:
Gadgets … were everywhere. He had a mechanical coin tosser which could be set to flip the coin through a set number of revolutions, producing a head or tail according to the setting. As a joke, he built a mechanical finger in the kitchen which was connected to the basement lab. A pull on the cable curled the finger in a summons. Claude also had a swing about 35 feet long attached to a huge tree, on a slope. We started the swing from uphill and the downhill end of the arc could be as much as 15 or 20 feet above the ground. … Claude’s neighbors on the Mystic lake were occasionally astounded to see a figure “walking on the water.” It was me using a pair of Claude’s huge styrofoam “shoes” designed just for this.
And yet, Thorp wrote, what impressed him more than any of the gadgets was his host’s uncanny ability to “see” a solution to a problem rather than to muscle it out with unending work. “Shannon seemed to think with ‘ideas’ more than with words or formulas. A new problem was like a sculptor’s block of stone and Shannon’s ideas chiseled away the obstacles until an approximate solution emerged like an image, which he proceeded to refine as desired with more ideas.”…