ALAN TURING: Inventor of the digital computer
THE modern world as we know it is run on computers. Your world and mine would be very different without them. It’s interesting to know that just 70 years ago computers didn’t exist. What’s more interesting is to consider that some of humankind’s most significant and most innovative inventions, such as the computer, emerged from the horrors of warfare. They say that necessity is the mother of all invention. This couldn’t have been truer at the time of Second World War.
Alan Turing (1912-1954) was the founder of computer science, a brilliant mathematician, a philosopher, code-breaker, strange visionary and a gay man before his time, whose unique contribution helped turn the tide of war. Turing was also known as the “brain” man and was the genius of Britain’s wartime code-breaking headquarters in Bletchley Park — the most secret place in Britain during WW2. Here, Turing created a code-breaking machine which formed the basis of all computer technology.
Alan Turing lived a short but significant life. At public school he fell in love with a boy who sadly died of tuberculosis, leaving Alan distraught, but contemplative. It was at this moment in his life that Alan Turing began to think about the relationship between the body and mind — between mind and matter. He wondered if the mind of the boy he had loved could have somehow survived his death. He became obsessed with the nature of thought and how the mind worked and became fascinated with the idea of building a thinking machine.
Whilst going for a run outside of Cambridge, Turing had one of the greatest mathematical insights of all time. He began to contemplate how an imaginary machine, operating with a very simple set of rules or instructions, but with an infinite amount of time, could solve any and all conceivable, mathematical problems. This was the first logical concept of the programmable computer, which became known as the Turing Machine. But then war broke out.
Turing was known for his code-breaking and mathematical skills and was soon assigned a post at Bletchley Park. Turing and his colleagues were tasked with cracking the Enigma — the sophisticated German coding device that was used to encode messages during the war. The Enigma was believed to be unbreakable and nearly all German u-boat missions used it. If it hadn’t been cracked by the code-breakers, it would have certainly changed the outcome of the war.
Thousands had been tasked with cracking the Enigma system, but it was Turing’s genius that allowed them to figure it out. It was also Turing’s chance to finally implement his idea of building a mechanical brain.
The Enigma device used a simple rotary system but was able to encode messages in literally millions of different ways. Not only that, but messages were encoded differently each day, and to crack it required more than thousands of human eyeballs.
Alan Turing and his colleagues constructed a mechanical machine called The Bombe, which was able to churn out thousands of possible answers to the encoded German messages. It involved a lot of guesswork, but without Turing and his code-breaking machine, Britain may very well have not survived the battle of the Atlantic.
The Bombe was not the world’s first computer, but after the war Alan Turing and his colleagues went on to build Colossus. This mechanical, “thinking” machine was labeled as the word’s very first digital computer and is what all modern computer technology is based on.
Alan Turing died young under mysterious circumstances. He was found dead in his room by his housekeeper and it was reported that he died of cyanide poising. There is a bit of a conspiracy theory here as some believe that Turing’s death was by accident, others thought it was suicide and another group believe that he was assassinated. The assassination theory certainly has something going for it, as Turing was not only a homosexual at a time when it was illegal, but he also held some of the most important secrets of WW2 and may have been considered as a security risk.
However his life ended, Alan Turing will certainly be remembered and appreciated for the rest of mine.
- Footnote: A personal statement of apology was given by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on September 10, 2009, for Alan Turing’s inhumane treatment.