From a very young age, Ed Thorp has been driven by a natural curiosity that pushes him to embrace challenges and investigate complex ideas. His father fostered this exploration, even during the lean years of World War II, giving him advanced books to read and treating him to special gifts, including a mineral set Ed fondly recalls experimenting with during the summer of 1942. From there, his interest grew to chemistry. After moving to Southern California, Ed convinced a nearby pharmacy owner to sell him chemicals at cost, so he could experiment and see how they reacted.
Much later as a math professor, inventor, and hedge fund manager, his desire to investigate complex topics and pursue what others said could not be done became a lifelong passion. At the University of California, Los Angeles, Ed majored in chemistry, moved on to a graduate degree in physics, and earned a PhD in mathematics. While working on his degrees, he continued to ponder ideas and problems.
Ed recalls that as a high school student roulette reminded him of planetary motion. He reflected, “If we can predict where planets go, can we predict where roulette balls go?” When this idea resurfaced while Ed was a graduate student in physics, he embarked on a project to build a prediction machine. After graduation in 1958, he headed to Las Vegas to test out some principles a professor had shared with him on how to win at blackjack, known as the Baldwin strategy. He played with some success, following the rules, but left feeling certain that a mathematical model could easily be applied to the game. So he set out to find it.
With his PhD in mathematics in hand, Ed made his way to MIT in the fall of 1959 to serve as an instructor in mathematics. He felt hopeful about finding others at MIT who might be open to his ideas. Upon arriving at the Institute, Ed immediately noticed that he was in a special place. “You could make a lot of rapid connections with people, ideas, equipment, and resources,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘These people are like me.’”
After teaching during the day, Ed would go to the calculating room (MIT Computation Center) at night and work on his blackjack theory. Knowing this would take too long to do manually, he was pleased to have access to the IBM 704 computer, the most advanced computer for math at the time. Teaching himself programming from a workbook, he learned the programming language Fortran and used the computer as a tool to research the probabilities of winning.
Once he mastered the principles of this theory, Ed wanted to publish his ideas before someone else ran off with them. While researching how to get published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he identified two men who might sponsor his paper. One was Claude Shannon, world-renowned information and communications pioneer, Donner Professor of Science, and mathematician at MIT.
While it was rare for Shannon to take time to speak with others, Ed did intrigue him during a brief conversation which then evolved into a several hours’ long lunch. Shannon suggested some edits and got the paper published in the Academy’s journal.
Bonded by their love for tinkering and building things, they were energized by Shannon’s love for toys. At that lunch, Ed shared his long-standing idea about beating roulette. Shannon was immediately excited about this idea, and they agreed to explore it together. Ed knew the key was to measure the ball’s velocity, and Shannon’s access to stroboscopes and a full-sized roulette wheel helped them in their research. After nine months of working together, mostly in the basement at Shannon’s home in Winchester, Massachusetts, they created the first wearable computer.
The duo got the machine working in June of 1961 and decided to test it on a trip with their wives to Las Vegas in August of 1961. Shannon monitored the position of the ball, operating a switch with his big toe to measure the ball’s position. Appearing to be unrelated, Ed sat at the table receiving the predictions via a transmitter in his ear and placing bets. Aside from wires that would occasionally break, the machine worked well and they ended up with a 44 percent advantage.
They continued to test out the computer and their theories and, although successful, decided not to continue, for they would need to disguise themselves. Later players who used the idea were so successful that in 1985 the Device Law was finally passed, banning all devices in gambling games. The first wearable computer now lives in the MIT Museum collection, and Ed is pleased it is “at home.”
Although MIT asked him to stay on and teach for another year, Ed ultimately departed for the West to teach first at the University of New Mexico and later at the University of California, Irvine. There, he found great success as a math professor and later as a hedge fund manager. Ed remembers his time at MIT as formative in paving the way for his successful career and in encouraging a culture of experimentation and problem solving.
His decision to support the MIT Museum at Kendall Square was a clear one. He recalls visiting museums as a child and recognizes the importance they hold as a place of teaching and education. “The MIT Museum is a great introduction to MIT, and it plays a critical role in providing access to young minds who might not realize the opportunities available in science and technology,” notes Ed. “This museum can get students excited about these fields and inspire them before they choose a path, just as topics caught my attention as a young boy and led me on my path.”