Alan Turing: Father of the computer
You may never have heard of him, but it is largely thanks to his genius that our lives are so intertwined with computers.
Alan Turing, a pioneering 20th century mathematician, is widely considered to be the father of modern computer science. It was his idea of creating a machine to turn thought processes into numbers, which was one of the key turning points in the history of electronic boxes and screens.
Turing was born in London in 1912 into an upper-middle class family and displayed a fascination for science throughout childhood.
He was regarded as good, but not exceptional at primary school, but developed an interest in chess. When he joined Sherborne public school in 1926, he cycled 60 miles from his home to school. School developed his athletic ability, which was to prove as excellent as his intellectual ability. He later became a member of the Walton Athletic Club setting records in the 3 and 10 mile championships and he came 5th in the A.A.A. Marathon in 1947 – he almost qualified for the British team in the 1948 Olympic games.
While reading maths at King’s College, Cambridge, in the 1930s, Turing spent much time reworking earlier scientific principles and developing his most significant mathematical theories. Despite his brilliance, he suffered from a feeling of isolation, and found it difficult to make friends. After graduating, Turing was elected a fellow of Kings, and worked at Princeton in the US, where he began work on what was later to become the first digital computer programme – the "Turing Machine".
His revolutionary idea was for a machine that would read a series of ones and zeros from a tape. These described the steps needed to solve a problem or task. But it was not until nine years later that technology had advanced sufficiently to transfer these ideas into engineering.
Turing’s experiments are credited with helping Britain win World War II by deciphering encrypted German communications, helping the Allies remain one step ahead. The wartime German computer Enigma generated a constantly changing code which was impossible for people to decipher. But Turing’s creation of Colossus – one of the first steps toward a digital computer – managed to crack Enigma’s codes, giving the Allies the break they desperately needed in fighting Germany.
After WWII, Turing took up long-distance running to relieve the stress and obtained record times in races in the Walton Athletic Club.
He went to work for the National Physical Laboratory and continued research into digital computers including developing the Automatic Computing Engine.
On June 7th, 1954, in Wilmslow, Cheshire, Turing died while experimenting with electrolysis. Potassium cyanide was found on a partly eaten apple beside him. The inquest stated that he took his own life. Whilst accident and even assassination cannot be ruled out, it is more likely that the frustrations of his secret work lead to his untimely death and the strong symbolism of the partly eaten apple, no coincidence.
When he died, Turing left the world a permanent legacy. Computers have revolutionised so many aspects of our world that today it is hard to imagine life without them.
J F (Peter) Harding was the secretary of Walton Athletic Club at the time Alan Turing was a member and he recalls first meeting Turing out on a run: –
We heard him rather than saw him. He made a terrible grunting noise when he was running, but before we could say anything to him, he was past us like a shot out of a gun. A couple of nights later, we kept up with him long enough for me to ask him who he ran for. When he said nobody, we invited him to join Walton. He did and immediately became our best runner.
Looking back, he was the typical absent-minded professor. He looked different to the rest of the lads; he was rather untidily dressed, good quality clothes mind, but no creases in them; he used a tie to hold his trousers up; if he wore a necktie, it was never knotted properly; and he had hair that just stuck up at the back. He was very popular with the boys, but he wasn’t one of them. He was a strange character, a very reserved sort, but he mixed in with everyone quite well: he was even a member of our committee.
We had no idea what he did, and what a great man he was. We didn’t realise it until all the Enigma business came out. We didn’t even know where he worked until he asked us if Walton would have a match with the NPL. It was the first time I’d been in the grounds. Another time, we went on our first ever foreign trip to Nijmegen in Holland he couldn’t come, but he gave me five pounds, which was a lot of money in those days, and said "Buy the boys a drink for me".
I asked him one day why he punished himself so much in training. He told me "I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard; its the only way I can get some release."
Turing came fifth in the AAA marathon which was used as a qualifying event for the 1949 Olympic games. His time was 2 hours 46.03 minutes which by modern marathon times does not look so great but was good at that time. To put it in perspective, the winning Olympic time was only 10 minutes better at the 1948 Olympics. A leg injury put an end to further serious running by Turing. However, even after he moved to Manchester he still occasionally represented Walton in events. The last event he ran for the club was in April 1950 when he was on the Walton relay team in the London to Brighton race. Also a member of the same Walton team was Chris Chataway, who a few years later went on to help Roger Bannister break the four minute mile.