Written by Hannah Rose
Alan Mathison Turing was born June 23, 1912, into an upper-middle class family in Paddington, London, England. From childhood and into adult life, he was noted for his eccentric, scientific interests, moodiness, dislike of traditional societal values, and strong sense of identity. He was also secretly, but strongly, homosexual, a trait frowned upon in the stringent English society. Being greatly interested in math and science, but unable to freely express his unconventional ideas, he went to King's College in Cambridge in 1931 to study mathematics. He thrived more easily there, and studied the Bertrand Russell's Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy and John von Neumann's writings on quantam mechanics, a topic Turing himself would study later on. Turing graduated in 1934, and was elected as a Fellow of the College the following year.
In 1936, Turing published his paper, On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem,
which introduced, for the first time, the concept of an abstract machine that could type down, remove, and even
read symbols from a tape, like an advanced typewriter. This invention was later developed and used, and is now referred to as the "Turing Machine". Turing used his new machine to prove that countably many real numbers--including the near infinite value of pi--were computable, using his tape to demonstrate. He also used the Turing Machine to show that some realnumbers were not computable. This revolutionary invention paved the way to better understanding of mathematics, the further invention of a more advanced computer, and for processing and translating complex codes. After the success of the Turing Machine, Turing went to work on creating a more complex computer. He returned to Cambridge in 1938 and set to work, building an analogue device that could possibly find the answer for the unsolved Riemann Hypothesis, which remains unsolved to this day as of 2011.
Turing was busiest during WWII (1939 - 45), when he was contacted by the Government Code and Cypher School. They requested that he join them in their British headquarters in Bletchly Park, to help decode messages sent from the German U-boat submarines. Turing accepted, and, putting his natural gift of understanding science and technology to good use, ran the enciphering device called The Enigma, used to decrypt German messages. He became a very prominent scientific figure in the British headquarters, and was responsible for enciphering messages from German submarines. His use of the Enigma even allowed England to claim victory in the battle of the Atlantic. His work in deciphering the German forces' messages was crucial to England's victory over Hitler in the war, and Turing became greatly respected for his wartime decryption.
After his exposure to the most advanced technology of the era, his
experience of decrypting codes, and his great interest in mathematics, Turing set to work on creating a new, highly advanced, highly modern computer. However, his uphill struggle was repeatedly daunted by the greater support for American technological studies, and by the fact that his involvement in the war--and his experience of its use of technology--had to be kept secret. Putting his work aside, he took a hiatus in 1947 to become a successful marathon runner, almost qualifying to participate in the Olympic games 1948.
After his hiatus, Turing set back to work and studied computers. He believed that a computer, properly programmed and built, could have the capacity to process information--or "think"--in a way that could rival the human brain. This spawned the theory of "Artificial Intelligence", a topic still widely discussed, studied, and utilized today in modern technology. In 1950, he published his paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, explaining the ways that such artificial intelligence in computers could be developed and utilized. It was also in this paper that the Turing Test, which was used to calculate whether or not a computer had efficient artificial intelligence--an I.Q. test for computers. This test was also revolutionary and helped develop the way computers were built, designed, and programmed, and continues being applied to modern, more advanced computers today.
However, this high period in Turing's life was dramatically interrupted when he was arrested for having a homosexual affair. He was faced to either go to jail or be injected with estrogen to lower his sex drive. He chose the latter and was released. However, even after this harsh homophobic treatment, Turing did not lose his sense of individuality or his liberal outlook. Unfortunately, he was to inhibit expressing his open homosexual pride and identity while working, due to the Official Secrets Act, which served to further his unhappiness. Nonetheless, Turing went to work in CGHQ, which, after the decoding successes of WWII in Bletchly Park, was the new center of decoding Russian messages during the Cold War. However, he was distrusted by his co-workers and security officers for having some foreign relation, making his job difficult.
Turing died of cyanide poisoning on June 7, 1954. Many believe his death was by suicide--the cyanide was found on half an eaten apple, and many claimed to have heard Turing talk of his own death.
In September 10, 2009, the U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown gave a public apology to Alan Turing and his legacy, praising his great work in the war and his contribution to the technological world, and lamenting the terrible treatment he was given for his homosexuality.
For more inventors during WWII, see: