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Anniversary marks the birth of Alan Turing

Nell Frizzell June 23, 2009

Alan Turing.

Alan Turing, the so-called ‘father of modern computing’, was born 97 years ago today.

Turing, who hid his homosexuality for much of his life, is probably best known for his contribution to breaking German codes at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

Fellow codebreaker Jack Good said of him: ‘I won’t say that what Turing did made us win the war but I daresay we might have lost it without him.’

During Turing’s lifetime being gay was still illegal and officially considered a mental illness. For this reason Turing was forced to keep his homosexuality a secret, until he was publicly outed in 1952.

Turing was charged with gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act (the same crime which saw Oscar Wilde imprisoned in 1895) in 1952. The mathematician was punished with chemical castration, through oestrogen injections aimed at lowering his libido. The ‘treatment’ lasted for a year and Turing was found dead in 1954, just one year later.

Speculations over the cause of death abound. The coroner in the case recorded it as suicide, as Turing had died of cyanide poisoning. However, members of his family claimed that the poisoning could have been due to a accidental mixing of chemicals during an amateur experiment.

As well as his work with Hut 8 in breaking the German Enigma machine, Turing was also a pioneer in the field of algorithms, which formed the basis of modern computing.

The Pilot Ace or Automatic Computing Engine, which was recently named one of The Science Museum’s ‘Century Icons’, was the earliest postwar attempt to create an electronic computer in Britain that built upon Turing ‘s ‘Universal Turing Machine’.

The Turing Machine was an early example of the computer model, with specific ‘inputs’ or algorithms being processed to produce a specific ‘output’. The concept was expanded with the Universal Turing Machine, which was a theoretical machine also designed by Turing, which could carry out any task, as long as each formula or algorithm was presented as a series of instructions.

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