Alan Turing: celebrating an enigma

Turing code

Remembering Turing the code breaker

Alan Turing was born 100 years ago today. He’s regarded as one of the founding fathers of computing, and probably most famous for the secret wartime work he carried out to crack the German Enigma code.

Turing was one of a large clandestine group of scientists and mathematicians based at Bletchley Park in the UK throughout WWII. By cracking the Enigma code, the British were able to eavesdrop on German military communications, take counter-actions, counteract with false information and, it is generally acknowledged, save thousands (some claim, millions) of Allied lives while, possibly, shortening the entire war.

For years, little was known publicly about this man. First, he was sworn to secrecy about his wartime work. Secondly, he eventually admitted to being a homosexual – a crime in the UK at the time he ‘came out’. When a court case accusing him of gross indecency proved successful, he was given the choice of a prison sentence, or chemical castration. He chose the latter.

Unrecognised genius rehabilitated

From that point on, he was ostracised both by his peers and the public. He was barred from further government projects. He committed suicide, two years later, in 1954. It is only recently that he and his achievements in pioneering the development of computers, have been positively recognised. In 1973, The Gay Liberation Organisation made his personal story known to a later generation, and in 1974 the scope and scale of the work of Bletchley Park was first acknowledged in public.

Even so, as campaigners press on his centenary for him to be posthumously pardoned, the UK government refuses. [1] All he got from a UK politician to date is an apology by Gordon Brown, broadcast in a TV documentary in 2011.

Turing’s positive achievements are listed in the fields of pure mathematics, in philosophy (The Turing Test), and in applied computing. But his greatest social achievement was to help break that wartime Enigma code.

There’s a plethora of online articles on Turing (see sources, below). A detailed celebration of aspects of his life and work appears on the Wired site [2]. The BBC has some interesting perspectives [3,4,5], there’s a good article in The Register [6] and a website dedicated to Turing’s centenary [7].

What’s missing?

One feature I noticed while reading around this subject is that, apart from a passing reference to the American wartime co-operative role in cryptography and computing, I have seen absolutely no reference to another pioneer of computing – in fact, the man officially acknowledged as the real inventor of what we now know as the “automatic electronic digital computer” (patent awarded in 1973).

But then, who else cares about a scientist, John Vincent Atanasoff (sic), except the Bulgarians? Born in the USA, the son of Bulgarian émigrés, Atanasoff [8] was also involved in (American) military projects targeted at computer applications to aid the war effort. His experiments led, by a long and rocky road, to eventual recognition as the true invent of today’s computer.

But, history is always selective, especially when it’s a matter of national consciousness (and atonement for past shame). So, 2012 is Turing’s glory year… Atanassof’s century was celebrated in 2003 – see the striking statue erected in Gen. Gurko street, central Sofia.

PS: Try to work out today’s Google Doodle! [9]

[1]: The Guardian

[2]: Wired

[3]: BBC online

[4]: BBC online

[5]: BBC online

[6]: The Register

[7]: 2012 The Alan Turing Year

[8]: John Atanasoff

[9]: PCWorld

Image source: UK Crown Copyright

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One Response to “Alan Turing: celebrating an enigma”

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