James Gleick sets the scene in the prologue to The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood:
As it happened, 1948 was when the Bell Telephone Laboratories announced the invention of a tiny electronic semiconductor, “an amazingly simple device” that could do anything a vacuum tube could do and more efficiently. It was a crystalline sliver, so small that a hundred would fit in the palm of a hand. In May, scientists formed a committee to come up with a name, and the committee passed out paper ballots to senior engineers in Murray Hill, New Jersey, listing some choices: semiconductor triode … iotatron … transistor (a hybrid of varistor and transconductance). Transistor won out. “It may have far-reaching significance in electronics and electrical communication,” Bell Labs declared in a press release, and for once the reality surpassed the hype.
The committee may have chosen transistor, but it wasn’t a committee-coined word: a Bell Labs engineer, John Robinson Pierce, had created it. A few months later, one of Pierce’s colleagues coined another word with “far-reaching significance”:
An invention even more profound and more fundamental [than the transistor] came in a monograph spread across seventy-nine pages of The Bell System Technical Journal in July and October. … It carried a title both simple and grand—“A Mathematical Theory of Communication”—the the message was hard to summarize. But it was a fulcrum around which the world began to turn. Like the transistor, this development also involved a neologism: the word bit, chosen in this case not by committee but by the lone author, a thirty-two-year-old named Claude Shannon. The bit now joined the inch, the pound, the quart, and the minute as a determinate quantity—a fundamental unit of measure.
But measuring what? “A unit for measuring information,” Shannon wrote, as though there were such a thing, measurable and quantifiable, as information.
How did Shannon come up with bit? Later in The Information, Gleick quotes Shannon: “The resulting units may be called binary digits, or more briefly, bits.”
I heard Gleick speak in San Francisco a couple of months ago and am finally reading his superb book. (Gleick, a former New York Times reporter and editor, is also the author of Chaos; Isaac Newton; and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.) Don’t be put off by the hundred pages of bibliography and endnotes, or by the occasional appearance of mathematical formulas: this is a thoroughly engaging story that combines history, biography, and philosophy. (And African talking drums.) For fans of onomastics, there’s a fascinating account of the naming challenges posed by technology. I hadn’t known, for example, that in 1919 the major telegraph companies “invited their customers to register code names for their addresses: single words of five to ten letters, required to be ‘pronounceable’—that is, ‘made up of syllables that appear in one of eight European languages.’” The New York Edison Company chose ILLUMINATE; the George Washington Hotel snagged CHERRYTREE. “It was first come, first served,” writes Gleick, “and it was a harbinger of things to come.”
Gleick, by the way, owns a very nifty domain name: around.com.