Alan Turing statue, Bletchley Park © Draig/Jon Culver

War Time Code Breaker, Mathematician, Scientist and Computer Pioneer

Alan Turing was one of Britain's greatest thinkers of the 20th century who defined modern computing and artificial intelligence. He has subsequently become a gay icon.

Alan Mathison Turing was born in London on 23 June, 1912 whilst his father was employed in the Indian Civil Service. As a result, he was exiled from his parents and fostered in worthy but uninspiring households in England while his parents were abroad in India.

Sherborne School – Development of Mind and Spirit

Turing developed an interest in science and took his own approach of challenging established thinking and proving it for himself. This was his core approach throughout his life, sometimes at a cost to his academic standing.

He went to Sherborne School, the English Public School (fee charging private schools), which had little interest in science. Fortunately, Turing was self-contained and did have some supportive teachers. His individualism worked against him in a school which reflected the social environment of Britain in the 1920s. However, Turing’s notes show he had a degree level understanding of relativity.

Fortunately intellectual friendship with Christopher Morcom improved Turing’s communication skills which allowed him to pass the essential exams and get a place at King’s College, Cambridge University in 1931. Morcom died suddenly in 1930 and Turing remained in touch with Mrs. Morcom for many years.

King’s College, Cambridge University

King’s College was the first place to provide Turing with a supportive community. Here he took a more rigorous approach to study and research. It was within the more tolerant environment of King’s that he accepted his homosexuality.

His excellent degree in 1934, Fellowship in 1935 and the 1926 Smith’s Prize suggestive of life as a pure mathematics don at King’s where his eccentricity would go unremarked. However his free-ranging mind had already started down a different track.

The Turing Universal Machine and Algorithmic Approach – Conception of Computing

In 1936, Alan Turing’s response was a paper titled "On Computable Numbers with an application to the Entscheidungs problem," whichwas published but he had to share the credit with Alonzo Church who had also published a paper on the Hilbert question. However, Turing had proposed a Universal Machine (or Turing Machine) and what is now called an algorithm which was to form the basis of modern computing. Turing continued his post-graduate studies at Princeton in the USA but returned in 1938 with war looming.

Second World War – Breaking the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park

Alan Turing returned to King’s but was also secretly working with the Government Code and Cypher School which was applying science for the first time. On outbreak of war Turing joined the School full time at Bletchley Park.

It was a war of wits and initial success at breaking the German Enigma code was undermined as the Germans modified the Enigma machines so new methods were needed. As part of the code-breaking solution automation was used and proved the practicality of the Turing Machine.

Turing and the Birth of Computing

By the end of the war, Turing had the experience and ideas that would drive the move to build a computer.

He was preempted again by the Americans with their plans to build EDVAC but it did give the British authorities the impetus to build their own computer. Initially this was to be the Automatic Computing Engine, ACE, for the National Physical Laboratory.

Turing shaped the design but attitudes that existed during wartime to get things done had dissipated and pace of development was slow. Turing did not have political or management skills to deal with bureaucracy and was sidelined.

But for injury he might have represented Britain at the 1948 Olympic Games. He also became more overt about his homosexuality and stopped conforming to social norms.

Turing and Manchester – Computer Programming for Mathematical Research

In 1948, Turing joined Manchester University as Deputy Director of the computer laboratory with a limited role. He returned to old interests which led to his major work: Computing Machinery and Intelligence which introduced the Turing Test of artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, he did not build upon it.

Turing switched to the question of how complex biological forms originate from initially symmetrical conditions. He became the first serious user of an electronic computer for mathematical modeling for scientific research.

In 1951, he was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society for his 1936 work and had been awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1945 for his war-time work.

Prosecution and Suicide

In 1952, Turing was prosecuted for his homosexual relationship with a young Manchester man. He was put on probation subject to treatment with estrogen to negate his drive.

He continued work on morphogenetic theory and renewed interest in quantum physics. As a result of the prosecution he was not allowed to continue his secret work for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

In June 1954, he was unexpectedly found dead having eaten an apple poisoned with cyanide. The verdict was suicide, only his mother believed it was the accident she had always feared.

Retrospective Apology from British Government

In 2009 computer scientist John Graham-Cumming, supported by scientists and gay activists called for an apology for Turing’s treatment by. Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, made such an  apology published in the Daily Telegraph where he also paid tribute to Turing’s work.Sources:

The above biography is derived from Andrew Hodges’ book: Alan Turing, the Enigma.


First appeared on Suite101


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