In Focus: Alan Turing

This week we look at the life of English mathematician, expert code-breaker and computer science pioneer, Alan Turing

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Alan Mathison Turing was born on 23 June 1912 in Maida Vale, London. His father’s position in the Indian Civil Service however meant he spent much of his childhood in foster homes with his brother John.

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His fascination for science and mathematics was clear from an early age, excelling in the subjects at a level beyond his years. His teachers at Sherborne School, in Dorset, were not encouraging of scientific education. It was not until 1931 when he started a mathematics degree at King’s College, Cambridge that Turing found the encouraging environment he never had at school.  

Bletchley Park and the Enigma code

In 1938, Turing began secretly working for the Government Code and Cypher School in London. When World War II was declared the following year, he moved to Buckinghamshire to take up a position at the cryptanalytic headquarters, Bletchley Park.

It was in Hut 8 at Bletchley that Turing and his team became instrumental in deciphering the German Enigma machine. Used by the Nazis, the Enigma was a cipher machine used to send secret communications and was regarded by many to be unbreakable.

But the genius of Turing the code-breakers at Bletchley in breaking the Enigma ciphers was a monumental step in winning the war.

Considered an eccentric, Turing became a much-loved character around Bletchley, cycling with his clothes over his pyjamas, and wearing a gas mask to avoid hay fever.

As well as cracking German codes, he built his concept for the Turing machine, one of the first model computers. This led him to be considered the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.

A tragic end 

Turing continued this work until 1952, when he was arrested and prosecuted for homosexuality – a criminal act at the time. He avoided prison by agreeing to injections of female hormones, known as chemical castration, as an attempt to ‘remove’ his homosexual libido.

On 7 June 1954, Turing committed suicide. He died of cyanide poisoning.

Turing’s life may have ended in tragedy, but his contributions to the war effort and to the development of computer technology means his legacy lives on. In a BBC poll in 2002 of the 100 Greatest Britons he came in at number 21.

5 Facts

1) In 2013, following a long campaign, Alan Turing was given a royal pardon for his conviction. He had received a formal apology from Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009 for the “appalling” treatment he endured.

2) While working at Bletchley, he proposed to fellow Hut 8 worker, Joan Clarke. She accepted, but he soon retracted the proposal after he admitted his homosexuality to her.

3) Ever the eccentric, in Hut 8 Turing used to chain his mug to the radiator to prevent it from being stolen.

4) Turing was a strong cross-country runner. He almost qualified for the 1948 British Olympics team, and occasionally ran from Bletchley to London for meetings.

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5) He was a fan of the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released the year before he died. He was particularly interested in the scene where the Wicked Queen brews the poisoned apple. It may just be a coincidence – we will never know for sure – but beside his bed when he died was a half-eaten apple.