This month in tech history: June - Alan Turing

Computer pioneer Alan Turing was born in June 1912, and committed suicide at the age of 41 in June 1954.

More than 60 years have passed since Alan Turing’s death, and while at the time of his death in June of 1954 he was at best, unknown, and at worst ostracised from society as a criminal, he is now famed around the world as ‘the father of computer science.’

Turing was born in Paddington, London, on 23 June 1912, attended Sherborne School, a well-known, though traditional, independent school in Dorset, before winning a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, to study mathematics. Four years later in 1935, he was elected to a Fellowship, and published a paper outlining what was arguably one of his greatest, and most famous ideas: a ‘Universal Machine’. He proved that such a machine would be capable of performing any conceivable mathematical computation if it were representable as an algorithm.

After two years (1936-1938) at Princeton University developing ideas about secret ciphers, Turing returned to Cambridge, and began working part-time at the British government’s code-breaking department, Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS). The day after the UK declared war on Germany, Turing reported to Bletchley Park, the wartime station of GC&CS. As a Bletchley Park codebreaker, Turing then led the team that cracked the Enigma code.

Through his work at Bletchley Park, Turing also had some technical involvement with the Tunny team which, with the help of Tommy FlowersColossus - the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer – cracked the ‘unbreakable’ Lorenz code. 

And Flowers wasn’t the only one building computers - in March 1946 Turing designed the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) - a digital computer that could store programs in its memory. Unfortunately, despite the viability of, the secrecy surrounding the wartime work at Bletchley Park delayed the start of the project and Turing became disillusioned.

This meant the Pilot ACE was built without Turing, and executed its first program on 10 May 1950. The full version of Turing’s ACE was never built, but a number of computers could be said to owe their existence to it, for example, the English Electric DEUCE and the American Bendix G-15.

After this, Turing began to really focus on the use of computers. In 1950, he published a philosophical paper, now called the Turing Test, which considered the question “Can machines think?” ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ remains his best-known work and was a vital contribution to the early development of the field of Artificial Intelligence.

In 1945, Alan Turing was awarded an OBE by King George VI for his wartime services, although his work continued to remain secret for many years.

However, in 1952, Alan Turing was charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. He entered a plea of guilty, and following his conviction, chose probation conditional on chemical castration, rather than serve a prison term. The conviction led to the removal of Turing’s security clearance, preventing him from continuing with work for GCHQ.

On 7 June 1954, two years after his conviction he committed suicide.

Following an internet campaign in 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology on behalf of the British government.

On 24 December 2013, Queen Elizabeth II signed a pardon for Turing’s conviction for gross indecency, with immediate effect.


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