Alan Turing – Father of computing and war hero

Hyperaxion Feb 25, 2020

One of the most brilliant mathematical minds of the 20th century, Alan Turing was a mathematician, cryptanalyst and computer science pioneer who helped crack Nazi codes, contributing to Hitler’s defeat in World War II.

Turing was gay and committed suicide after being condemned by the British government, which prohibited homosexuality at that time.

The early years of the father of computing

Since childhood, Alan Turing had shown an early talent for science and mathematics. At 15, he condensed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and handed it to his mother.

His genius was recognized early and he received a scholarship to join King’s College at the renowned University of Cambridge.

In college, he conceived the idea of a machine that could read symbols.

In an article published in 1936 called “On Computable Numbers, With An Application to the Decision Problem”, Turing predicted that one day we would build a machine that could compute any human problem, using the numbers 0 and 1.

Originally, the mathematician described a person performing operations and he would be called “the computer”.

The “Turing Machine” has become one of the pillars for computer science and is one of the most influential mathematical abstractions of the 20th century. That is why he is considered by many to be the inventor of the computer.

War hero – How Alan Turing cracked the Nazi Enigma code

Enigma machine, used by the Nazi government to send encrypted messages.
Enigma machine, used by the Nazi government to send encrypted messages. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

During World War II, Nazi Germany used a machine known as Enigma.

It was used to transmit encrypted messages between Hitler’s government, his army, war commanders and other strategists.

The machine was the size of a typewriter, but it also had a second set of letters that lit up.

If you pressed a letter on the machine, a different letter would light up in the upper set, thus creating a code.

Additionally, the machine had three rotors that rotated when a letter was pressed. That way, if you pressed, for example, twice the same letter, different letters would be written.

Every day, the Enigma machine had 150 trillion possible combinations, which made its messages almost impossible to decipher.

The day after Britain declared war on Germany, Turing wrote a letter offering to work at Bletchley Park, a British military facility designed to crack Nazi codes.

At the military facility, Turing developed a machine called “bombe”. Using common phrases already deciphered from Enigma, such as time reports, he was able to decipher more and more phrases.

Replica of the machine invented by Alan Turing, "bombe", in Bletchley Park.
Replica of the machine invented by Alan Turing, “bombe”, in Bletchley Park. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

At its peak, the cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park were decoding about 84,000 communications each month.

It is estimated that the work developed by Turing and the other cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park decreased World War II by more than 2 years and saved about 14 million lives.

Gay icon – Condemned by the country he helped save

Alan Turing on the left and Christopher Morcom on the right. Young Christopher had a major impact on Turing's life.
Alan Turing on the left and Christopher Morcom on the right. Young Christopher had a major impact on Turing’s life. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Until 1967, sexual relationship between two men was illegal in England.

Alan Turing was a homosexual, lived his life discreetly and little is known about his romantic relationships.

He even got engaged for a while to a Bletchley Park co-worker, also mathematician Joan Clarke.

It is reported that one of Turing’s great passions was a young man he met at Cambridge named Christopher Morcom.

Chris was also fascinated by mathematics, but died at the age of 17 as a victim of bovine tuberculosis.

Christopher’s death prompted Alan to continue studying mathematics, in an attempt to understand whether part of Christopher could survive without his body.

Turing even wrote an essay in which he theorized how the soul could survive after death through a field of quantum mechanics.

For 30 years, Alan Turing’s contributions to the end of World War II have been kept secret. He continued to work for the next few years developing even more studies for computer science at the University of Manchester.

Alan Turing statue in Manchester. The mathematician is depicted holding an apple and in front of him is the mosaic LGBTQI flag.
Alan Turing statue in Manchester. The mathematician is depicted holding an apple and in front of him is the mosaic LGBTQI flag. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

In 1952, Alan was convicted of “homosexual acts” by the British government. Since 1885, the so-called “gross indecency” was a criminal offense in the United Kingdom and sentenced thousands of people to prison just for being gay.

Turing accepted parole instead of imprisonment, under the condition of chemical castration (hormonal treatment to decrease his libido, which caused several other side effects).

Death

In 1954, Turing committed suicide by eating an apple that contained cyanide.

His body was found by his maid, and the bitten apple was beside him.

Many people believe that the logo of the technology company Apple is a tribute to the great inventor and father of computing.

The pardon

The 50-pound note with Alan Turing’s face will start circulating in 2021 in the UK. (Source: Bank of England).

55 years after his death in September 2009, the British government publicly apologized to Alan Turing for the way they treated him. However, he did not obtain an “official pardon” that year.

In 2012, many influential people around the world, including physicist Stephen Hawking, pressured the government for an official pardon.

In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted Alan Turing the “royal pardon”.

The British government announced in June 2019 that Alan Turing’s face will be on the 50-pound notes starting in 2021 with a sentence uttered by the mathematician:

“This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.”

Alan Turing

The film about Alan Turing: “The Imitation Game”, what does the title refer to?

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” (2014). (Source: IMDB).

The 2014 film, “The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, brought the pioneer Alan Turing to life.

Based primarily on the work of the mathematician during the Second World War, the film portrays the genius and peculiarities about Turing’s life and his tragic death.

Critically acclaimed, the film received 8 Oscar nominations and won in the “Best Adapted Screenplay” category.

The film took some creative liberties, for example, to give the name Christopher for the machine created by Turing, to represent his first great love. The machine was called “bombe”, as we know, .

The title, the imitation game, refers to an idea developed by Turing in 1950: could a machine deceive a human being into believing that he is talking to a person?

The Turing test suggests “the game of imitation”, which would be a way of assessing whether a machine could imitate human behavior.

These ideas have long been adopted for the study of artificial intelligence.


Wherever you are reading this article (laptop, desktop computer, cell phone or tablet), you now know that the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing was an important figure behind this technology.

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