Robert Fano

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Robert Fano
Prof. Fano in his office at MIT in 2012
Roberto Mario Fano

(1917-11-11)11 November 1917
Turin, Italy
Died13 July 2016(2016-07-13) (aged 98)
CitizenshipUnited States of America
Alma materMIT
Known forFano algorithm
Fano metric
Fano's inequality
Shannon–Fano coding
Pointwise mutual information
Founder of Project MAC
RelativesUgo Fano (brother)
AwardsIEEE James H. Mulligan Jr. Education Medal (1977)
Shannon Award (1976)
IEEE Fellow (1954)
Scientific career
Fieldscomputer science, information theory
InstitutionsMassachusetts Institute of Technology
Thesis Theoretical Limitations on the Broadband Matching of Arbitrary Impedances  (1947)
Doctoral advisorErnst Guillemin

Roberto Mario "Robert" Fano (11 November 1917 – 13 July 2016) was an Italian-American computer scientist and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became a student and working lab partner to Claude Shannon, whom he admired zealously and assisted in the early years of Information Theory.[1][2]

Early life and education[edit]

Fano was born in Turin, Italy in 1917[3][4] to a Jewish family and grew up in Turin.[5] Fano's father was the mathematician Gino Fano, his older brother was the physicist Ugo Fano, and Giulio Racah was a cousin.[6] Fano studied engineering as an undergraduate at the School of Engineering of Torino (Politecnico di Torino) until 1939, when he emigrated to the United States as a result of anti-Jewish legislation passed under Benito Mussolini.[7] He received his S.B. in electrical engineering from MIT in 1941, and upon graduation joined the staff of the MIT Radiation Laboratory. After World War II, Fano continued on to complete his Sc.D. in electrical engineering from MIT in 1947. His thesis, titled "Theoretical Limitations on the Broadband Matching of Arbitrary Impedances",[8] was supervised by Ernst Guillemin.


Fano's career spans three areas, microwave systems, information theory, and computer science.

Fano joined the MIT faculty in 1947 to what was then called the Department of Electrical Engineering. Between 1950 and 1953, he led the Radar Techniques Group at Lincoln Laboratory.[9] In 1954, Fano was made an IEEE Fellow for "contributions in the field of information theory and microwave filters".[10] He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1958, to the National Academy of Engineering in 1973, and to the National Academy of Sciences in 1978.[9][11]

Fano was known principally for his work on information theory. He developed Shannon–Fano coding[12] in collaboration with Claude Shannon, and derived the Fano inequality. He also invented the Fano algorithm and postulated the Fano metric.[13]

In the early 1960s, Fano was involved in the development of time-sharing computers. From 1963 until 1968 Fano served as the founding director of MIT's Project MAC, which evolved to become what is now known as the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.[14][15] He also helped to create MIT's original computer science curriculum.

In 1976, Fano received the Claude E. Shannon Award for his work in information theory.[9] In 1977 he was recognized for his contribution to the teaching of electrical engineering with the IEEE James H. Mulligan Jr. Education Medal.[16]

Fano retired from active teaching in 1984,[17] and died on 13 July 2016 at the age of 98.[17]


In addition to his work in information theory, Fano also published articles and books about microwave systems,[18] electromagnetism, network theory, and engineering education. His longer publications include:

  • "The Theory of Microwave Filters" and "The Design of Microwave Filters", chapters 9 and 10 in George L. Ragan, ed., Microwave Transmission Circuits, vol. 9 in the Radiation Laboratory Series (with A. W. Lawson, 1948).
  • Electromagnetic Energy Transmission and Radiation (with Lan Jen Chu and Richard B. Adler, 1960).
  • Electromagnetic Fields, Energy, and Forces (with Chu and Adler, 1960).
  • Fano, Robert (1961). Transmission of information: a statistical theory of communications. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-56169-3. OCLC 804123877.


  1. ^ Fano, Robert M. "The Transmission of Information : Parts [I] and II (Technical Reports 65 and 149)".
  2. ^ Markoff, John (13 March 2008). "Joseph Weizenbaum Dies; Computer Pioneer Was 85". The New York Times. p. 22. Retrieved 15 August 2011.
  3. ^ Seising, Rudolf (8 August 2007). Fuzzification of systems: the genesis of fuzzy set theory and its initial applications - developments up to the 1970s. Springer. p. 33. ISBN 978-3-540-71794-2. Retrieved 15 August 2011.
  4. ^ "United States Public Records Index". FamilySearch. Retrieved 9 August 2013.
  5. ^ Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck? (Part Five) BY ERROL MORRIS JUNE 23, 2011, New York Times
  6. ^ The New York Times biographical service. New York Times & Arno Press. 2001. p. 297.
  7. ^ Morris, Errol (23 June 2011). "Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck? (Part Five)". Opinionator. The New York Times. Retrieved 14 March 2012.
  8. ^ "Theoretical Limitations on the Broadband Matching of Arbitrary Impedances - MIT Technical Report no. 41" (PDF). MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics. 2 January 1948. Retrieved 18 May 2013.
  9. ^ a b c Lee, John A. N. (1995). International biographical dictionary of computer pioneers. Taylor & Francis US. p. 296. ISBN 978-1-884964-47-3.
  10. ^ "IEEE Fellows - F". Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Archived from the original on 12 November 2013. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
  11. ^ Dates of election per the American Academy and National Academies membership lists.
  12. ^ Salomon, David (2007). Data compression: the complete reference. Springer. p. 72. ISBN 978-1-84628-602-5.
  13. ^ Fano, Robert M. (April 1963). "A heuristic discussion of probabilistic decoding". IEEE Transactions on Information Theory. 9 (2): 64–73. doi:10.1109/tit.1963.1057827.
  14. ^ Wildes, Karl L.; Lindgren, Nilo A. (1985). A century of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, 1882-1982. MIT Press. pp. 348–. ISBN 978-0-262-23119-0. Retrieved 15 August 2011.
  15. ^ Belzer, Jack; Holzman, Albert G.; Kent, Allen (1 May 1979). Encyclopedia of computer science and technology: Pattern recognition to reliability of computer systems. CRC Press. p. 339. ISBN 978-0-8247-2262-3. Retrieved 15 August 2011.
  16. ^ "IEEE James H. Mulligan Jr. Education Medal Recipients" (PDF). IEEE. Retrieved 9 December 2014.
  17. ^ a b Conner-Simons, Adam; Gordon, Rachel (15 July 2016). "Robert Fano, computing pioneer and founder of CSAIL, dies at 98". MIT News Office. Archived from the original on 16 July 2016. Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  18. ^ Lee, Thomas H. (2004). Planar microwave engineering: a practical guide to theory, measurement, and circuits. Cambridge University Press. p. 93. ISBN 978-0-521-83526-8.

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