Huffman coding as metaphor

Mohr August (August Mohr Consulting & Publishing, Boulder Creek, California, USA)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Publication date: 11 November 2013



David Huffman, as a graduate student, earned his immortality by solving a problem that had stumped Claude Shannon, the creator of the field of information theory. How he saw the problem differently and the nature of his discovery have implications for how we get stuck, how we get unstuck, and how the internal models limit the ability to see patterns in the world. The paper aims to discuss these issues.


This paper describes how Huffman discovered his elegant algorithm, why it had not been discovered previously, how the algorithm may relate to the attempt to find meaning in decision making, and generalises implications for problem solving and daily lives.


Huffman was only able to see the problem anew in the cathartic moment of abandoning it. The algorithm he discovered suggests that the concept of “meaning” was an obstacle in his process.

Practical implications

Huffman coding is one of the underpinnings of computer science. While it should be widely understood for that alone, the process of its discovery and its fundamental methodology are deeply instructional.


Alexander Pope said “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree”, a classic statement about conscious purpose and man's controlling nature. Huffman's algorithm suggests the real world works the other way around: “As the leaves are lit, so grows the tree”.



The author wishes to acknowledge the help of Elise Huffman and Linda Huffman who made available their private archive of their father's work.


Mohr, A. (2013), "Huffman coding as metaphor", Kybernetes, Vol. 42 No. 9/10, pp. 1431-1438.

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