Alan Turing

1930s: Turing’s Universal Machine

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1930s, Turing’s Universal Machine.

Did you know that the blueprint for the modern computer was laid down as long ago as 1936?

That was the year that mathematical pioneer Alan Turing imagined a ‘universal machine’ in his paper ‘On Computable Numbers.’ Turing described a machine that could read symbols on a tape and proposed that the tape be used to program the machine. However it was not until many years later that Turing’s ideas were realised as practical machines.

Alan Turing

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Turing became head of a codebreaking unit at Bletchley Park, where he used his mathematical skills to design a series of codebreaking machines known as ‘bombes’. After the war, he moved to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. Here he devised one of the first practical designs for a stored-program computer, revisiting his original ideas proposed in 1936, called the Automatic Computing Engine or ‘ACE’.

Stephen Fry, explained why he was voting for Turing’s Universal Machine via an audioboo, saying, “Turing had an idea of a machine to solve an intellectual problem and then had that rare ability amongst mathematicians to push it through to building machines, which he did in the codebreaking, and then he moved on later, in Manchester to the idea of this Universal Machine, which is the first programmable computer.”

Without Turing’s Universal Machine, we would not have the computers that we take for granted today, which is why it deserves your vote as the Greatest British Innovation. Cast your vote here.

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