Alan Turing: A Biography
Search for ‘Alan Turing’ on Google, and a frequently asked question will pop up: What is Alan Turing famous for? Well, that’s not a question that has a simple answer. A mathematician, cryptanalyst and known by many as the father of modern computer science, Alan Turing came to fame as the brain that broke the enigma code and turned the tide that allowed the allied forces to win a world war.
But there was more to him than just those defining factors. He was a London boy, an Olympic-level runner, a philosopher, and a man that was ahead of his time with an understanding of human needs that is more akin to ours today.
And so, to help you better understand the man our building is named after, here is our own version of Alan Turing’s Biography.
Born on 23rd June 1912 in Maida Vale, London, Alan Turing’s early life could only be considered normal. His father was a Civil Servant operating out of India but, not wishing to disturb his studies, his parents kept him and his older brother, John Turing, residing in the UK during their periods abroad.
In his school years he frustrated teachers. At the time ‘the classics’ – Greek literature, theology, Latin – were the primary study in which boys were expected to excel and a strong grasp of the English language was a signifier of intelligence. Turing’s skills lay within mathematics and the sciences which were valued less then than they are now.
That said, there were some teachers who noted his abilities at an early age. The headmistress of his primary school once wrote that she: “had clever boys and hardworking boys, but Alan is a genius.” Cawthorne, Nigel (2014). Alan Turing: The enigma man.
Noted as a formative experience for Turing was the loss of his dearest childhood friend and suggested first love, with which he shared his affinity for science – Christopher Morcom. The pair met at Sherborne School and remained friends until Christopher tragically died at the age of 19, to Bovine Tuberculosis caught from contaminated cow’s milk. He had just been granted a scholarship to attend Cambridge.
The experience seemed to enact a change in Turing’s interests. He regularly wrote to Christopher’s mother, questioning things like the spirit and mind, spurring on a curiosity with philosophy that before was reserved solely for science. But that didn’t hinder his achievements in mathematics and science.
Turing continued to study as an undergraduate in mathematics at Cambridge, beginning in 1931. Three years later he finished with a First-Class Honours Degree. In 1935 he was elected a fellow and continued to study mathematics, specialising in computability. It was during these next two years and the release of his paper On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. he mentioned the hypothetical Turing Machine and therefore gave birth to the idea of the modern computer.
In 1936 he went to Princeton to study under mathematician Alonzo Church for two years and it was here he became involved in cryptology, finally obtaining his PHD in 1938. He then returned to the UK and to Cambridge, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War which would give a whole new meaning to his practice of cryptology and codebreaking.
Bletchley Park, an historic English country estate, became the home to the Allied Forces’ codebreaking activity during the Second World War and became Turing’s new part-time workplace in his role for the Government Code and Cypher School, the predecessor to GCHQ.
Fast becoming known for his eccentricities (like wearing a gas mask when cycling to beat off his allergy to pollen), he quickly became recognised as an authority on the German Enigma Cipher Machine. During his time at Bletchley, he made five significant advances which are widely regarded to have hastened the Allied Forces’ win and resultant end to the war.
The most recognised of these was his bombe, a machine which cracked the Enigma code used by the Axis Powers, namely Germany. The use of these machines at Bletchley Park resulted in the Allied Forces decoding roughly two messages per minute, giving them unique insight into the movements of the Axis Powers.
After the end of the war, Turing was then made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, although due to the top-secret nature of Bletchley’s work, nobody truly appreciated his efforts until decades later when the information was released to the public.
After the end of the war, Turing moved to Hampton, London and began his designs of ACE (the Automatic Computing Engine and one of the world’s earliest computers). His research and papers, however, lacked a number of proofs that he had completed during his time operating at Bletchley Park under the National Secrets Act. This created a bit of an obstacle, so much so that the first version of ACE wasn’t actually built in full until after his death.
During this time, Turing also looked into the idea of Artificial Intelligence and came up with an experiment called the Turing Test, which determines the intelligence of a machine. A fun fact that you might not know: we use a version of the Turing Test in everyday life – CAPTCHA. The simple act of recognising elements within a photograph is enough to determine whether we are human or computer.
Alan Turing died at his home on 8th June 1954. The cause of his death was established as cyanide poisoning and, after an inquest, was controversially determined to be suicide.
In the two years running up to his death, he was prosecuted for his sexuality. After being convicted, he was forced into hormonal injections to decrease his libido (now compared to the modern chemical castration). His conviction also meant the removal of his security clearance, and his resultant dismissal as a consultant for GCHQ. He was able to keep his job at the University.
After many years of petitioning the government, Alan Turing was pardoned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on Christmas Eve, 2014. The Alan Turing Law is now an informal name for the exoneration of other men convicted for crimes based on their sexuality.
And that brings us to the conclusion of our Alan Turing biography. But, why name our building after him? You might have noticed that the Stratford streets around IQL reflect the rich history of East London and pay homage to the innovators, the pioneers. Like Layard Street, named for radical antiquary Nina Frances Layard; Redman Place which takes its name from Frederick John Redman, who risked his life valiantly in the Second World War; and Turing Street, of course dedicated to the visionary Alan Turing.
At Lendlease we celebrate diversity and inclusion, they’re part of the core values that shape how we operate. We want our buildings to pay tribute to those who came before us and opened our minds to revolutionary ways of thinking and working. We want our buildings to break boundaries, to offer new opportunities, to open minds. We want to invest in workspaces for the future and create places where new generations of innovators, creators and thinkers can thrive.
And so, who better to name our newest building after, than Alan Turing?