It’s a sad fact that this man of genius didn’t live very long.
Down at the bottom of the website it often says “fill in the Turing numbers then click submit”. Did you ever wonder why the numbers had to be Turing numbers?
Well, they are called Turing numbers because they are named after Alan Turing, a pioneer in the development of the computer and the father of modern computer science. A brilliant mathematician he studied at both Cambridge and Princeton Universities and in 1945 produced the first design for an electronic general-purpose digital computer, the Automatic Computing Engine, or ACE.
Although the pilot model was not put into production until 1950 it was the first electronic computer to be built in Britain and the fastest in the world at that time. However, Turing’s design was also used for the UK government’s MOSAIC computer and for the Bendix G-15, the world’s first personal computer which remained on sale until 1970.
Born in England in 1912 Turing had a major role in breaking the German codes in World War 2. In 1939 and 1940 Turing and his colleagues devised a code-breaking machine which was used effectively up until the end of the war, decoding up to 85,000 messages a month.
In 1948 Turing joined Manchester University as deputy-director of its Computing Machine Laboratory where he was responsible for programming the Ferranti Mark I computer, the world’s first commercial computing machine. And apart from his other work Turing designed a method of encoding and decoding telephone conversations and in 1950 wrote the world’s first computer chess program.
Turing’s proposals, in collaboration with Alonzo Church, for a machine which would have several functions held in a memory had a profound influence on computing. Turing machines are still in use today and Turing-completeness defines modern computing.
Turing was also intensely interested in morphogenesis, the process by which multi-celled life develops during growth, and was still working on this at the time of his death in 1954.
What happened to cut his life so short? Turing was openly homosexual at a time in the UK when any homosexual activity was considered a criminal offence. Arrested over a homosexual liaison in 1952 he admitted his guilt in court, saying that he felt that he had done no wrong. Given the choice of a prison sentence or oestrogen Injections for a year he cheerfully accepted the latter.
However, as a result of this case, the British authorities decided that he had become too big a security risk, especially with the possibilities of his being blackmailed, and his security clearance for government decoding and intelligence work was withdrawn. Turing appeared to take these setbacks in his stride and continued his work on morphogenesis and the quantum theory at Manchester University.
But in 1954 he was found dead in bed, the autopsy showing that he had died from potassium cyanide poisoning. In a neighbouring room he had been conducting electrolysis experiments and cyanide was found on a half-eaten apple. At the official inquest his death was ruled a suicide, but as there was no reason why he should want to kill himself, this verdict was disputed by his family and friends and is still disputed by many up to the present.
Who knows what discoveries this genius of a man might have made, what heights he might have attained, had he been allowed to live another thirty or forty years. But what he did achieve in his short life forms the basis of modern computer science and he will always be honoured for that.