Alan Mathison Turing
June 23rd, 1912 - June 7th, 1954
World War Two's Unknown Mathematical Geniusby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Many believe that Alan Turing’s greatest achievement was not inventing the Turing Machine but instead cracking the Enigma code, used by the German army in World War II. This event has been argued as the turning point in the war. And in this biography we will see the importance of it, among other achievements of Turing’s.
Alan Turing’s early life was like almost any other English child of the time, but even early on in his life he was able to reason far ahead of his age. Turing was conceived in Chatrapur, Orissa, India. His father, Julius, was involved in the Indian Civil Service there, but before Alan was born, his parents decided that it would be better for him to be brought up in England so they returned to London, where Alan was born soon after. However, Julius still worked for the Indian Civil service and would often travel back to India with his wife, Sara, leaving Alan and his older brother John in the care of some friends in Hastings, England. Even as a young child, Alan showed signs of genius and in 1918 when he was six, Alan started school at St, Michael’s day school.
At the age of 14, Alan’s parents enrolled him in Sherborne School, a famous and expensive public school. Unfortunately for Alan, Sherborne concentrated more on the classics while Alan showed his genius in mathematics and science. His displeased headmaster wrote this in a letter to Alan’s parents: "I hope he will not fall between two schools. If he is to stay at public school, he must aim at becoming educated. If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a public school”. However, even with this setback Alan continued to show remarkable progress in mathematics and science, proving his genius. One particular motivation to Turing was Christopher Morcom, an older student at Sherborne. During Turing’s last semester at Sherborne School, Morcom suddenly died from bovine tuberculosis, a disease that he developed after drinking infected cow's milk as a boy. Because of this tragedy, the small amount of faith that Turing possessed was destroyed and from then on he claimed atheism.
In his college years Turing continued to show his prodigy as a mathematician. From 1931-1934 Turing attended King’s College in Cambridge. This was not his first choice for college. He failed to win a scholarship to Trinity College in Cambridge because he was reluctant to study the classics and chose instead to almost solely study mathematics and science. Despite this, at King’s College he ended up graduating in 1934 with a distinguished degree, and one year later was elected a fellow at King’s for a dissertation on the central limit theorem. In 1936 he came up with the idea for what is now called the Turing machine, a “basic abstract symbol-manipulating device which, despite its simplicity, can be adapted to simulate the logic of any computer algorithm.” This device was never actually constructed, but in studying the abstract properties of the machine, scientists have come up with many insights on computer science and logic. The following year Turing attended Princeton University and was instructed by Alonzo Church, an American mathematician and logician. One year later 1938 he earned his Ph.D. then moved back to Cambridge where he resided for the rest of that year and the next.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment in his lifetime was cracking the Enigma code which took place during World War II. In September of 1939 when hostilities came up between Britain and Germany, Turing left Cambridge and went to the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. There he, along with many other cryptographers, worked to decode German ciphers, one of which was the Enigma. The Enigma machine was originally invented in 1915 by two Dutch Naval officers. In 1918 a German businessman by the name of Arthur Scherbius patented and started selling the Enigma machine to various banks and businesses, but by 1924 the German Army had invented a military version of this machine and was using it to send encrypted messages. By the time World War II had started the German Army was still using the Enigma, believing that it was unbreakable.
When Turing came to Bletchley Park, it became his job to break this “unbreakable” code, and break it he did. Fortunately for Turing and the other code breakers at Bletchley Park, the Polish had been working on breaking the Enigma for a few years previous and so it took Turing less than a year to break the German Air Force and German Army Enigma codes. Building on the work done by the Polish code breakers and their bomba and his own theory of the Turing Machine, Alan Turing designed most of an electrical-mechanical machine called a bombe. This machine worked more efficiently than the earlier Polish bomba and soon most of the cryptographers at Bletchley Park were using these machines. Later that year, Turing also broke the German Naval Enigma, labeled the most difficult to break. In 1942 he played a crucial part in breaking the Lorenz cipher, a high level communications Teletype cipher used by the higher ranking German commanders. Historians believe that because of the work of the code breakers at Bletchley Park, namely Turing, the war was shortened by two years. Unfortunately for these heroes however, in order to protect the English security none of these men were aloud to share any of their work with the public. It was over 30 years before any information about the efforts at Bletchley Park were released.
After the war Turing was recruited by the National Physical Laboratory to work on the design of the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), one of the first digital computers. Soon thereafter however, the company ran into delays and Turing became impatient and decided to take a one year sabbatical during which the Pilot ACE was built, a smaller version of the original ACE.
In 1952, Turing was discovered to be a homosexual, which at that time was illegal in the United Kingdom, and considered a mental illness. He was unrepentant and was convicted of his crime and given the option of imprisonment or probation and hormonal treatment. Turing chose hormonal treatment, which lasted for a year, to avoid going to prison. Two years later, on June 8th, 1954, his cleaner found him dead. Turing had died the day before from partially-eating a poisonous, cyanide-laced apple. It is unsure whether or not his death was suicidal. If it was suicide, as many believe, one could speculate that Turing’s atheistic beliefs contributed toward his sense of despair and hopelessness. Without hope in God for his predicament, it was only natural that Turing would want to take his life, if such was truly the case. And it is likewise unfortunate that the man, who Sir John Casti in his review of Alan Turing’s life had declared that this one man’s work provided the “theoretical backbone” for all computers to come, should have died long before the full impact of his mathematical contributions were realized.