Alan Mathison Turing, born in London on 23 June 1912, is considered by many as the father of computer science.
Turing matriculated at King’s College Cambridge in 1931, and graduated in 1934 with a distinguished degree in mathematics. A year later he was elected a fellow of Kings on the strength of a dissertation on ‘The Gaussian Error Function’. It was while a fellow at Cambridge that Turing developed what are now known as ‘Turing machines’, basic abstract symbol-manipulating devices which, despite their simplicity, can be adapted to simulate the logic of any computer algorithm. They are the basis for all modern computing systems.
From 1936 to 1938 Turing had a brief hiatus from Cambridge by spending time obtaining a Ph.D. from the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, which continued his work on the Turing machine. His dissertation introduced the notion of relative computing, where Turing machines are augmented with so-called oracles, abstract machines used to study decision problems that cannot be solved by a Turing machine.
When he returned to Cambridge, Turing studied under Ludwig Wittgenstein and started to work part-time for the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS), a British intelligence agency.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, he became heavily involved with breaking German ciphers at Bletchley Park, the war-time centre of GCCS. He had a significant role in breaking down the Enigma Machine by designing the ‘bombe’, the principle aid in deciphering Enigma messages.
In July 1939 he had been part of a team which went to Poland to examine the Polish ‘bomba’, which the English ‘bombe’ was based on. The ‘bombe’ was an electromagnetic relay machine, being used to find the original settings of the encrypting Enigma, which were then tried on a British version of the Enigma.
Turing’s bombe was installed in 1940, and by the end of the war, over 200 were in operation around the country. Turing was awarded an OBE in 1945 in recognition of his war-work.
Immediately after the war, Turing worked on the development of the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) at the National Physical Laboratory and in 1948 he was appointed to a Readership in the University of Manchester, to assist with the construction of a computing machine by leading the mathematical side of the work. A year later he was deputy director of the computing laboratory in Manchester, and worked on the software for the Manchester Mark 1, one of the earliest computers.
In his seminal paper, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’, Turing suggested that the best way to simulate an adult mind in a machine would be to build a program to simulate a child’s mind and then educate it.
Turing was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1951. From 1952 he worked on mathematical biology and morphogenesis, the growth and form of living things, particularly Fibonacci phyllotaxis, the existence of Fibonacci numbers in plant structures.
Turing was homosexual, in an age when sexual relations between men were illegal. In 1952 he was convicted of gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. This led to him losing his job at Bletchley Park, and in 1954, he committed suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple.
2012 marks the centenary of his birth and whilst his life was sadly cut short his impact is still very much felt in modern computing circles and this anniversary is being marked by a worldwide schedule of lectures and events. See our links at the top of the page for highlights of the programme and other content you may find interesting.