Who was Alan Turing?

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Dec 11, 2014 by James

A new film, The Imitation Game, is a screen version of the novel by Ian McEwan. Both explore the life and work of Alan Turing, a British mathematician, philosopher and computer scientist. So, who was Turing, and what makes him worthy of portrayal on the silver screen?

 

Early years

Alan Turing was born in June 1912, the son of a British civil servant and his Irish wife. The Turings were a long-established family of noble descent, and Alan was sent first to prep school and then to Sherborne School in Dorset.

Although interested in science from a very early age, Alan Turing did not shine at school and was almost prevented from sitting the School Certificate (the equivalent of today's GCSEs). His headmaster described the young Turing as “a problem.” However, he did go on to study mathematics at King's College, Cambridge.

 

Phenomenal

Turing's subsequent work can only be described as phenomenal. He essentially founded computer science and according to some, invented the world's first computer (although much of that claim depends on how you define a computer). His work on computing exceeded the realms of pure mathematics and extended into philosophy.

However, Turing is probably best known for his work on code breaking during World War II. The war broke out on the 3rd September 1939, and Turing arrived at Bletchley Park, the home of British code breaking, the following day.

Over the next few years, Turing developed a range of techniques for breaking German ciphers and in particular, those enciphered using the German Enigma machine. So important was Turing's work that Winston Churchill credited him with single-handedly shortening the war by several years.

 

After the war

When World War II ended, Turing continued with his work and found time to become an excellent distance runner. His peers hugely respected him for his huge contributions to maths and science in a range of areas. After 1950 he more or less abandoned computer science and in 1951 he was elected to a fellowship of the Royal Society.

 

The end

On the 7th February 1952, the day of Queen Elizabeth's accession, Alan Turing was arrested for (consensual) homosexual acts, which were illegal at that time. He was convicted, and underwent oestrogen injections as an alternative to prison.

Although he bore his misfortune bravely, everything had changed in Turing's world. He travelled abroad and maintained his work, but he was shunned by much of the establishment.

On Friday the 4th June 1954, Alan Turing went to work as usual. On Monday the 7th June 1954, he ingested cyanide and died.

 

Afterwards

On the 10th of September 2009, as the result of sustained campaigning, the Prime Minister gave a full statement of apology for Turing's persecution. He was given a formal Royal Pardon on the 24th December 2013.

All of the details of Turing's wartime work were top secret until the 1970s at which point, the British public began to fully appreciate the remarkable contributions to mathematics, science and national security that this astonishing man had made. Without that work, you may not have been able to read this article today.