by Jonathan Black, Paul Curzon and Peter W. McOwan, Queen Mary University of London
From the archive
Alan Turing was born in London on 23 June 1912. His parents were both from successful, well-to-do families, which in the early part of the 20th century in England meant that his childhood was pretty stuffy. He didn’t see his parents much, wasn’t encouraged to be creative, and certainly wasn’t encouraged in his interest in science. But even early in his life, science was what he loved to do. He kept up his interest while he was away at boarding school, even though his teachers thought it was beneath well-bred students. When he was 16 he met a boy called Christopher Morcom who was also very interested in science. Christopher became Alan’s best friend, and probably his first big crush. When Christopher died suddenly a couple of years later, Alan partly helped deal with his grief with science, by studying whether the mind was made of matter, and where – if anywhere – the mind went when someone died.
The Turing machine
After he finished school, Alan went to the University of Cambridge to study mathematics, which brought him closer to questions about logic and calculation (and mind). After he graduated he stayed at Cambridge as a fellow, and started working on a problem that had been giving mathematicians headaches: whether it was possible to determine in advance if a particular mathematical proposition was provable. Alan solved it (the answer was no), but it was the way he solved it that helped change the world. He imagined a machine that could move symbols around on a paper tape to calculate answers. It would be like a mind, said Alan, only mechanical. You could give it a set of instructions to follow, the machine would move the symbols around and you would have your answer. This imaginary machine came to be called a Turing machine, and it forms the basis of how modern computers work.
Code-breaking at Bletchley Park
By the time the Second World War came round, Alan was a successful mathematician who’d spent time working with the greatest minds in his field. The British government needed mathematicians to help them crack the German codes so they could read their secret communiqués. Alan had been helping them on and off already, but when war broke out he moved to the British code-breaking headquarters at Bletchley Park to work full-time. Based on work by Polish mathematicians, he helped crack one of the Germans’ most baffling codes, called the Enigma, by designing a machine (based on earlier version by the Poles again!) that could help break Enigma messages as long as you could guess a small bit of the text (see box). With the help of British intelligence that guesswork was possible, so Alan and his team began regularly deciphering messages from ships and U-boats. As the war went on the codes got harder, but Alan and his colleagues at Bletchley designed even more impressive machines. They brought in telephone engineers to help marry Alan’s ideas about logic and statistics with electronic circuitry. That combination was about to produce the modern world.
Building a brain
The problem was that the engineers and code-breakers were still having to make a new machine for every job they wanted it to do. But Alan still had his idea for the Turing machine, which could do any calculation as long as you gave it different instructions. By the end of the war Alan was ready to have a go at building a Turing machine in real life. If it all went to plan, it would be the first modern electronic computer, but Alan thought of it as “building a brain”. Others were interested in building a brain, though, and soon there were teams elsewhere in the UK and the USA in the race too. Eventually a group in Manchester made Alan’s ideas a reality.
Not long after, he went to work at Manchester himself. He started thinking about new and different questions, like whether machines could be intelligent, and how plants and animals get their shape. But before he had much of a chance to explore these interests, Alan was arrested. In the 1950s, gay sex was illegal in the UK, and the police had discovered Alan’s relationship with a man. Alan didn’t hide his sexuality from his friends, and at his trial Alan never denied that he had relationships with men. He simply said that he didn’t see what was wrong with it. He was convicted, and forced to take hormone injections for a year as a form of chemical castration.
Although he had had a very rough period in his life, he kept living as well as possible, becoming closer to his friends, going on holiday and continuing his work in biology and physics. Then, in June 1954, his cleaner found him dead in his bed, with a half-eaten, cyanide-laced apple beside him.
Alan’s suicide was a tragic, unjust end to a life that made so much of the future possible.
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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.