By: Victoria Yates
Alan Turing was born on the 23rd of June 1912 in London. His father, Julius, was at the time serving in India, so he was left under the care of a retired army couple in England. Turing proved to be an incredibly bright child from an early age, thriving in science and maths (much to the annoyance of Sherborne School which placed emphasis on the classics). He completed advanced problems at the age of 15 without having studied even elementary level calculus.
His only real friend came in the form of Christopher Morcom who enjoyed exploring science as much as Turing. Morcom is believed to have been Turing’s first love interest, but he unfortunately died suddenly from tuberculosis. Turing gave up on religion and solidified a belief that everything, including the activities of the human brain, must be materialistic.
Although his lack of interest in classics lost him a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, Turing attended his second choice, Kings College. Here he published work on Turing machines, a machine conceivably capable of solving any mathematical problem if it was presented as an algorithm. He was widely praised and graduated with a distinguished degree in 1934 before being made a fellow of the college the following year. He went on to gain a PhD from Princeton University where he modified the Turing machine to solve previously unsolvable problems.
When war broke out, Turing was back in the UK and became the main participant at Bletchley Park in the program to break German ciphers. He made various notable contributions to the effort, but his most highly marked achievement was cracking the Enigma Machine code (building on work already done by Polish researchers). Turing developed a machine that would work quicker and more effectively. Turing’s “bombe” machine used logic to work out the coding, realising when a contradiction had occurred and crossing off that possibility, leaving only a few options to be investigated in greater depth.
He continued to lead the field in computer technology, being involved in both the first design of a stored-program computer in Britain (ACE) and one of the earliest “true” computers (Manchester Mark 1). As time moved on Turing also moved more into abstract thinking and devised the “Turing test” for artificial intelligence which attempted to create a standard for testing whether something is “sentient.” Working alongside D.G. Champernowne, he also began writing one of the first computer chess programs.
Turing died tragically in 1954 after eating an apple laced with cyanide. Some believe this to be suicide, because Turing had been prosecuted for his homosexuality, losing security clearance and being forced to undergo hormonal injections. Others are more sceptical and view the fact that his homosexuality posed a security risk which was itself a suitable motive for assassination. In any case, since then he has been given proper acclaim across the mathematical and scientific world, gaining recognition posthumous for his innovative thinking and ahead of his time concepts. Whilst not a leader in a classical sense, his work and inspiration of others make him a true leader of the technological age.