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Turing, Alan (Mathison)

computer automatic manchester machine

[ too ring] (1912–54) British mathematician and computer scientist: mathematically formalized the concept of the theoretical computer.

After graduating from Cambridge, Turing was elected a Fellow of King’s College there in 1935, and then spent 2 years in Princeton. In 1937 he described a theoretical computer in precise mathematical terms (the Turing machine), an important step that formalized the hitherto vague concept of computability and computable numbers. During the Second World War he worked on code-breaking, playing a dominant part in breaking the German naval code, which enabled the Allies ultimately to win the crucial Battle of the Atlantic against German submarines. This work was done at Bletchley Park, under military control which was sensibly relaxed on discipline for the civilian cryptanalysts. Had it been otherwise, the Army would no doubt have become aware of Turing’s barely concealed homosexuality. Such awareness would have led to Turing’s removal, which possibly would have cost the Allies the Second World War.

After the war, he put his ideas on computing into practice when he supervised the construction of the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) at the National Physical Laboratory, and at Manchester where he was assistant director of the work on MADAM (Manchester Automatic Digital Machine). His work on the design of such machines and the way in which they could be programmed was of great significance in the development of the computer, but his concept of an automatic electronic digital computer with internal program storage could not be realized until after his death, when advances in electronics made it possible.

In 1952 Turing attacked the problem of the formation of shapes and patterns in biology; the range includes flower patterns, bone symmetry and the tiger’s stripes. He argued that chemicals diffusing through tissue and reacting can explain such pattern formation, and he devised equations that describe a distribution of reactants that can lead from homogeneity to pattern formation. These ideas have been much developed since then, and the problem is far from solved, but Turing’s work was a valuable starting point.

Turing was also interested in artificial intelligence and developed a useful criterion for an intelligent machine: that it would be able to answer enquiries over a data-link in a manner indistinguishable from a human being.

Turing was a near-Olympic-standard long-distance runner. He was also an active homosexual at a time when this was a criminal offence. In 1952 he reported to the police that a young male Manchester print-worker, with whom he was having an affair, was involved in the theft of some goods from his house. This was unwise of Turing, because it led foreseeably and inevitably to him being charged with gross indecency, and convicted. He was placed on probation and required to accept hormone drug treatment. He seemed remarkably unaffected by all of this, although exasperated by some of the effects of the drug, but a year after the probation and the treatment ended, he was found dead in his bed, with potassium cyanide and a partly eaten apple nearby. A rather casual inquest concluded that his death was due to suicide.

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