Today is my birthday and I’m in London! My wife, my son, my daughter and me have decided to go to the Science Museum and we have found an interesting exhibition about Alan Turing:
The Second World War was not just fought with bombs and shells. It was a war of electronic whispers and secret radio signals snatched from the ether.
At Bletchey Park, Buckinghamshire, thousands of men and women laboured night and day to crack these coded radio messages which held Germany’s most secret plans. One of these codebreakers was Alan Turing.
But Turing was not just a codebreaker. Born 100 years ago, the British mathematician was also a philosopher and computing pioneer who grappled with some of the fundamental problems of life itself. Yet his own life was cut tragically short. In 1954 he was found dead, poisoned by cyanide. He was 41.
Throughout his life, Turing broke the codes of science and society. His ideas helped shape the modern world – but it was a world he did not live to see. This is his story.
After the Second World War, Alan Turing as asked to put his theories and experience into action by developing a ground-breaking electronic computer at the government’s National Physical Laboratory. His first specifications were written in 1945.
Following administrative delays, Turing left the project in 1948, but a trial version (known as Pilot ACE) was completed in 1950. It is now the most significant artefact in existence.
Yet the Pilot ACE computer was more than just a trial. It was used for several years by a variety of external customers desperate to employ its computing power. It also became a public celebrity, referred to as Turing’s ‘electronic brain’.
So Turing was the man who broke Enigma and this machine is also shown in the exhibition:
Enigma machines were first introduced in the 1920s for keeping commercial messages secret. An Enigma machine was used at both the transmitting and the receiving end of the message.
Senders typed their messages on the keyboard. Each typed letter was encrypted by passing an electrical signal through a plug-board and rotors, causing a different letter to light up. These new letters formed a secure message, ehich could be transmitted by radio to the recipient.
At the receiving end, the message was decrypted using an Enigma machine that had been set up initially in exactly the same way as the sending machine.
Soon after their introduction, government institutions and the military began to use modified Enigma machines for their secret communications, believing nobody would be able to break the cipher system. But this was what Alan Turing and his colleagues managed to do.
Alan Turing worked at Bletchey and he developed sophisticated decryption processes and devised the machines called ‘bombes’ that could break the code on an industrial scale. Some 200 bombes were built at a secret facility nearby. The exhibition had some pictures about the bombs and these two wheels from a bomb machine, c. 1940:
Next to Turing’s bombs and computers we can also see these two pioneer calculating machines:
The right one is a mechanical logic machine by William Stanley Jevons (1869) and the other is an electrical logic machine by Dietrich Pronz and Wolfe Mays (1949).
We have some personal aspects of this important man too. For example, the exhibition points to the fact that in 1927 Turing began a close friendship with a boy at this school, Christopher Morcom. In 1930 Morcom died from tuberculosis, aged 18, and Turing wrote a short essay expressing his belief that the human spirit can live outside the body.
The exhibition also shows this calculating machine used at the Scientific Computer Service in 1939:
I didn’t know that questions like…
What will be the position of the Moon in A.D.2000? How would you know the right direction in which to point an anti-aircraft gun?
were posed in a 1942 newspaper articleabout the Scientific Computing Service. Before Turing’s computer, ‘computers’ were human and usually women. In fact, in 1936 Turing wrote an article which was the theoretical basis for today’s computers because he imagined a machine that could compute any problem.
In 1948, Alan Turing moved to Manchester University to work on a ground-breaking stored-program computer developing mathematical theories of morphogenesis (growth and patterns in animals and plants). In those years he began a relationship with Arnold Murray and in 1952 Turing was arrested under anti-homosexuality legislation. Given a choice of imprisonment or a one-year course of female hormones, he opted for the latter. It seems that he couldn’t stand that kind of experiment and he committed suicide.