STORIES
Scientists

Alan Turing

by Grayson from Fredericksburg

Portrait of Alan Turing (The Conversation (unknown photographer))
Portrait of Alan Turing (The Conversation (unknown photographer))

Alan Turing never flew around with a cape, nor did he shoot spider-webs out both wrists. Well, he probably didn't. He did, however, fight against evil on a global scale and the technology he used to do so was of his own marvelous invention. But above all, this man shaped the world of modern day, possibly more than anyone else. So how is it that most people have simply never heard the name? The answer comes in the form of an incredible story, the story of a forgotten hero.

Turing as a young child... (ComputerworldUK (unknown photographer))
Turing as a young child... (ComputerworldUK (unknown photographer))

Alan Mathison Turing was born the youngest of two boys to Julius Mathison and Ethel Sara Turing on June 23, 1912 in London, England. Between 1926 and 1931, Turing attended Sherborne School where he supposedly hated it and its lack of science lessons, which he always adored. However, despite this, he did so well in his studies that one of his professors claimed he was wasting his time in public school. By the end of his last semester at Sherborne, he achieved admission to Cambridge University as an undergraduate at King's College. He not only continued to excel in his studies, which were now focused on quantum mechanics and mathematics, but after graduating in 1934, he was granted fellowship of King's College for his achievement in researching the probability theory.

The Turing Machine (math 2033 - University of Arkansas (unknown artist))
The Turing Machine (math 2033 - University of Arkansas (unknown artist))

Turing's research later lead to his mathematical proof written in 1936; it stated that automatic computation cannot solve all mathematical problems and was backed by Alonzo Church, a professor at Princeton who had previously written a research paper with similar findings. Under Church's wing, Turing moved to the United States to study algebra and number theory at Princeton. With Church's help, he finally developed the Turing Machine, the first computer able to recognize mathematical input and return output.

During the late summer of 1938, Turing returned to his King's College fellowship in the United Kingdom. A year later, the Germans brought the outbreak of World War II, and coded messages. The British immediately recognized the need for cryptanalysts to break the Nazis' enigma code, which had devastating effects on the Allies. German submarines in the Atlantic received hundreds of coded messages everyday, many revealing the positions and routes of Allied ships. This resulted in huge losses of Allied supplies headed for the European theater. Turing, highly experienced of course with mathematics and computation, was quickly chosen to be a lead cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park, Britain's top secret enigma facility.

The Bombe (California State University at Long Beach (unknown photographer))
The Bombe (California State University at Long Beach (unknown photographer))

Seven years earlier, in 1932, Polish cryptanalysts reconstructed a commercial German enigma machine. After studying its mechanics, the Poles, aided by the French, constructed a machine called the Bombi. Its purpose was to decode Germany's commercial encryptions, however, it was obsolete against the Nazis' military enigma. Inspired the Bombi though, Alan Turing led the analytics team to study the Nazis' codes and eventually created his own, more advanced version of the Bombi, called the Bombe. It was so successful in decoding German messages that it is believed to have won the battle in the Atlantic and saved millions of Allied lives, alone. Had the Nazis continued to rule the Atlantic, an unbelievable amount of precious Allied equipment, reinforcements, and supplies would have surely been lost, possibly changing the outcome of the war.

 Unfortunately, it seems even a legendary war effort could not win the government's full appreciation. Turing, a quiet man his entire life, was gay, and his secret almost always remained a secret. However, in 1952, he was arrested by British officials for homosexuality, then thought to be a punishable crime. He lost his government security clearance and came close to losing fellowship at King's College. Turing even lost credit amongst some of his fellow mathematicians at Bletchley Park. In essence, he lost everything that mattered to him, and in 1954, he took his own life.

More humbling than anything though, Bletchley Park, including Alan Turing and the Bombe, was not declassified until the mid-1970s. Turing never shared information about his work and success there with anyone.

Page created on 12/12/2012 11:38:19 AM

Last edited 12/12/2012 11:38:19 AM

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