Category Archives: Alan Turing

Alan Turing granted Royal pardon

A posthumous pardon has been granted to the great mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and philosopher, reports Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

Alan Turing, the wartime codebreaker who laid the mathematical foundations of the modern computer, has been granted a posthumous pardon by the Queen for his criminal conviction for homosexuality.

A Royal pardon is usually only granted where a person has been found innocent of an offence and a request has been made by a family member. This unusual move brings to a close a tragic chapter that began in February 1952 when Turing was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a man, then tried and convicted of “gross indecency”.

Portrait of Alan Turing. Image credits: NPL / Science Museum

Portrait of Alan Turing. Image credits: NPL / Science Museum

To avoid prison, Turing accepted treatment with the female sex hormone oestrogen: ‘chemical castration’ that was intended to neutralise his libido.

Details of the circumstances leading to his death on 7 June 1954, at home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, can never be known. But Turing had himself spoken of suicide and this was the conclusion of the coroner, following an inquest.

In 2009 Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister, issued a public apology for his treatment. A letter published a year ago in the Daily Telegraph, written by Lord Grade of Yarmouth and signed by two other Science Museum Trustees, Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Dr Douglas Gurr, called on the Prime Minister to posthumously pardon Turing.

Turing has now been granted a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy after a campaign supported by tens of thousands of people. An e-petition calling for a pardon received more than 37,000 signatures.

Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, said: “A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”

The pardon states: “Now know ye that we, in consideration of circumstances humbly represented to us, are graciously pleased to grant our grace and mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and grant him our free pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.”

But the reaction to the news has been mixed. Turing biographer Dr Andrew Hodges, of Wadham College, Oxford, told the Guardian newspaper : “Alan Turing suffered appalling treatment 60 years ago and there has been a very well intended and deeply felt campaign to remedy it in some way. Unfortunately, I cannot feel that such a ‘pardon’ embodies any good legal principle. If anything, it suggests that a sufficiently valuable individual should be above the law which applies to everyone else.

“It’s far more important that in the 30 years since I brought the story to public attention, LGBT rights movements have succeeded with a complete change in the law – for all. So, for me, this symbolic action adds nothing.

“A more substantial action would be the release of files on Turing’s secret work for GCHQ in the cold war. Loss of security clearance, state distrust and surveillance may have been crucial factors in the two years leading up to his death in 1954.”

The Science Museum’s award-winning Turing exhibition,which closed a few months ago, showed that a signature moment of Turing’s life came on February 13, 1930, with the death of his classmate and first love, Christopher Morcom, from tuberculosis.

Science Museum conservator Bryony Finn inspects the Pilot ACE computer - at a preview of the Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy exhibition at the Science Museum. Image credits: Science Museum

Science Museum conservator Bryony Finn inspects the Pilot ACE computer – at a preview of the Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy exhibition at the Science Museum. Image credits: Science Museum

As he struggled to make sense of his loss, Turing began a lifelong quest to understand the nature of the human mind and whether Christopher’s was part of his dead body or somehow lived on.

Earlier this year Turing’s Universal Machine, the theoretical basis for all modern computing, won a public vote, organised by the Science Museum, GREAT campaign and other leading bodies in science and engineering to nominate the greatest British innovation of the last century.

#TuringTour: Tweeting our Turing Exhibition

To celebrate Alan Turing’s birthday this week, curator David Rooney gave the #TuringTour, a tweeted live tour of our Codebreaker exhibition.

The full tour can be seen here, but we’ve pick out a few highlights for you below…

Next on the #TuringTour, we turned to computing before computers, when computers were actually people and mostly women

War is, as ever, a powerful stimulus for innovation. Examples include this bomb aiming computer:

But if Alan Turing is famous for one thing, it is his work at Bletchley Park on naval Enigma and German ciphers

We ended the tour with a rather poignant question…

Over 370 tweets were sent using #TuringTour from as far away as Denmark, Chile and the USA. We also had some great feedback from followers:

Thanks to all of you who followed the tour, and you can discover more about the Codebreaker exhibition here.

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.

Science Museum conservator Marisa Kalvins inspects a Cybernetic Tortoise. The tortoise was invented due to the growing interest amongst researchers such as Turing in artificial intelligence in the 1950s. Photo credit: Geoff Caddick/PA

Codebreaker wins Great Exhibition award

By Roger Highfield

The Science Museum’s critically-acclaimed exhibition about Alan Turing, the mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and philosopher, has been awarded a prestigious prize by the British Society for the History of Science.

First prize in the BSHS’s 2012 Great Exhibitions competition went to Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy which commemorates the centenary of Turing’s birth by telling the story of how he helped lay the foundations of modern computing and broke the codes of the Nazis, nature and society too.

The exhibition traces the influences over Turing’s lifetime from the death in 1930 of the love of his life, Christopher Morcom, to the use of his Pilot ACE computer by crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin to crack the atomic structure of vitamin B12 to his final research on pattern formation in biology.

First demonstrated in 1950, Pilot ACE is one of Britain’s earliest stored program computers and the oldest complete general purpose electronic computer in Britain.

The standard of the submissions to the competition’s large display category was ‘extremely high’, said the BSHS, with entrants from North America, Europe and Britain, covering various subjects, from alchemy and acoustics to anatomy and computing.

James Stark, Chair of the Society’s Outreach and Education Committee commented that Codebreaker goes beyond basic biography:

This helps to move the public understanding of Turing beyond that of a solo genius. The objects used in the display are foregrounded well, especially the beautifully-presented Hodgkin B12 model, and interestingly juxtaposed: the theatrical set-like pieces worked well to conjure up different historical moments such as Turing’s work in Cambridge and Manchester. Overall, it presented a clear, coherent narrative, and showcased a wealth of content, illustrated with original objects.

The exhibition, designed by Nissen Richards studio and made possible with the generous support of Google, covers how Turing’s team cracked U boat codes at Bletchley Park to change the course of the Second World War and features three examples of the German enciphering machine, Enigma, including one lent to the museum by Sir Mick Jagger.

Among the other items in the exhibition are a cybernetic tortoise that had inspired Turing during a 1951 visit to the Science Museum, and a bottle of the female sex hormone oestrogen: Turing had been subject to ‘chemical castration’ to neutralise his libido.

Science Museum conservator Marisa Kalvins inspects a Cybernetic Tortoise. The tortoise was invented due to the growing interest amongst researchers such as Turing in artificial intelligence in the 1950s. Photo credit: Geoff Caddick/PA

Homosexuality was a criminal offence at that time and in February 1952 Turing was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a man, then tried and convicted of “gross indecency”. To avoid prison, he had accepted the hormone treatment.

The most poignant item on display is a copy of the pathologist’s post-mortem report, detailing the circumstances of Turing death at his home on 7 June 1954, in Wilmslow, Cheshire.

The autopsy revealed that Turing’s stomach contained four ounces of fluid that smelt of bitter almonds: a solution of a cyanide salt. His death was not accidental: there was enough of the poison to fill a wine glass.

The award for the exhibition comes as leading figures, including Professor Stephen Hawking and Sir Paul Nurse (both Science Museum Fellows), called on the Prime Minister to posthumously pardon Turing.

Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy was launched at the Science Museum on the 21 June 2012 with an event that featured, among others, David Rooney, Curator; Tilly Blyth, Keeper of Technologies & Engineering, Emily Scott-Dearing, now Head of Exhibitions and Programmes, Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, David Harper of Google  and Sir John Dermot Turing, nephew of Alan Turing. Codebreaker will run until 31 July 2013.

The Second prize in the BSHS’s 2012 Great Exhibitions competition was won by the Berlin Museum of Medical History at Charité for their exhibition Tracing Life.

The small exhibition category was won by the Royal College of Physicians, London, for ‘Curious Anatomys’, while joint second place was taken by the National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, for Reconstructing Lives, and The Museum of Art at the University of Virginia for Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott.

Roger Highfield is the Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.

Alan Turing

Pardon Turing say Leading Scientific Figures

A number of leading scientific figures, including Professor Stephen Hawking and Sir Paul Nurse (both Science Museum Fellows), have called on the Prime Minister to posthumously pardon British mathematician and codebreaker, Alan Turing, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph published this morning.

Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954, following a conviction for gross indecency during a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK.

Alan Turing

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

The letter – written by Lord Grade of Yarmouth and signed by two other Science Museum Trustees Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Dr Douglas Gurr – describes the Turing as “one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the modern era”, and pays tribute to his efforts in deciphering the Enigma code and advancing computing:

We urge the Prime Minister to exercise his authority and formally forgive this iconic British hero to whom we owe so much as a nation and whose pioneering contribution to computer sciences remains relevant even today.

The Science Museum is currently celebrating the centenary of Turing’s birth, telling the story of this pioneering British figure, his life and legacy, through a new exhibition sponsored by Google. Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s life and legacy beings with a look at Turing’s best known work, deciphering the Enigma code at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

German Enigma machine

The secret Enigma codebreaking work was carried out by Turing and colleagues at Bletchley Park during the Second World War

However, Alan Turing was not just a codebreaker, and the exhibition details Turing’s life and legacy as a philosopher and computing pioneer as well. His ideas helped shape the modern world, from aircraft design to early computer programming and artificial intelligence.

Pilot ACE

Pilot ACE is one of Britain’s earliest stored program computers and the oldest complete general purpose electronic computer in Britain.

At the heart of the exhibition is Pilot ACE  (Automatic Computing Engine). One of the first electronic ‘universal’ computers, Turing was responsible for its fundamental design, writing the specification in 1945. Pilot ACE remains the most significant surviving Turing artefact in the world.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3NkVMHh0_Q']

Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s life and legacy showcases Turing’s breadth of talent, offering an informative retrospective view of one of Britain’s greatest twentieth-century thinkers.

The Spirit of Alan Turing

The tragic loss of a friend during his teenage years exerted an extraordinary influence on Turing’s life, according to Roger Highfield and David Rooney

By Roger Highfield and David Rooney

Alan Turing 1951

The defining moment of the remarkable life of Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most original thinkers, came much earlier than many realise. It was not while Turing cracked Nazi codes at Bletchley Park to change the course of the Second World War. Nor when he lay the mathematical foundations of modern computing. Or that instant when, during a 1951 visit to the Science Museum, he was fired up by the lifelike behaviour of a cybernetic tortoise.

The Museum’s new Turing exhibition, which marks the centenary of his birth in 1912, shows that the signature moment of Turing’s life came on February 13, 1930, with the death of his classmate, Christopher Morcom, from tuberculosis. This shattering event propelled the great Turing through a remarkable career.

Morcom was Turing’s first love, a fellow, older pupil at Sherborne School, Dorset, who shared Turing’s passion for mathematics. Though Turing’s crush was not reciprocated, he was profoundly affected by the death of his friend. In a contribution towards an anthology for Morcom’s grieving mother, which is on display in the exhibition, Turing admitted that he ‘worshipped the ground he trod on’.

Morcom’s death cast a long shadow. Turing turned away from his Christian faith towards materialism, and began a lifelong quest to understand the tragedy. As he struggled to make sense of his loss, Turing pondered the nature of the human mind and whether Christopher’s was part of his dead body or somehow lived on.

Alan Turing is often portrayed as an isolated genius, even a borderline Asperger’s loner. This traditional depiction is, perhaps, a weak reflection of homophobia of recent decades. But read about his feelings for Morcom, his letters and the correspondence of those close to him and you obtain a more complete portrait. Far from being the insular genius of popular belief, Turing could be warm and gregarious, though he did not suffer fools gladly and had an original take on the way he lived his life as much as he conducted his science.

The October after the loss of his friend, Turing went up to Cambridge, where he studied mathematics. Our exhibition includes an essay, entitled “Nature of Spirit” that Turing wrote the next year, in 1932, in which he talked of his belief in the survival of the spirit after death, which appealed to the relatively recent field of quantum mechanics and reflected his yearning for his dear friend.

Around that time he encountered the Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics by the American computer pioneer, John von Neumann, and the work of Bertrand Russell on mathematical logic. These streams of thought would fuse when Turing imagined a machine that would be capable of any form of computation. Today the result – known as a universal Turing machine – still dominates our conception of computing.

Turing’s struggle to solve the codes of thought paved the way to his interest in cryptanalysis, the study of how to crack ciphers. Around the time of the Munich agreement in 1938 Turing began to help the UK government with the problem of deciphering German communication and this interest would culminate in an extraordinary effort during the Second World War when he worked for the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park.

There Turing would break the codes of society too. In 1941, Turing had proposed marriage to Joan Clarke, a fellow cryptanalyst, but decided he could not go through with the marriage after admitting his homosexuality to his fiancée, who was reportedly “unfazed” by the revelation.

Turing’s greatest challenge at Bletchley was the German enciphering machine, Enigma, three of which are on show in our exhibition (including one kindly lent by Sir Mick Jagger). He took particular responsibility for reading U-boat communications and led a team that designed the great ‘bombe’, a calculating machine that successfully decoded Germany’s wartime messages. Eventually, over 200 were built, each weighing a ton, that made the noise of a ‘thousand knitting needles’ when in full flight.

The breaking of the Enigma was vital, partly because it meant that the Allies could intercept messages to the U-boats that were attacking convoys, sinking merchant ships and threatening to isolate Britain. It’s even been claimed that, without Bletchley Park’s contribution, the war might otherwise have been lost.

At that time a ‘computer’ was not a machine but a person, often female, who did calculations by hand. Machines were used too, but only for defined jobs, such as aiming bombs or solving differential equations. Combining his ideas from mathematical logic, his experience in cryptology, and the remarkable code cracking machinery of Bletchley, Turing’s ambition was to create a computer in the modern, electronic, flexible sense.

He joined the National Physical Laboratory, NPL, in Teddington in 1945 where his detailed – and world-beating – plan for an electronic computer was accepted in March 1946. But by then his remarkable wartime achievements were a state secret and he was not taken as seriously as he deserved. Frustrated, Turing resigned in 1948 though eventually, in 1950, his ideas came to life at NPL in the form of the Pilot ACE computer, which is the star of the Museum’s Turing exhibition.

Pilot Ace

The machine was the fastest in its day. This remarkable testament to Turing’s inventive capabilities was in huge demand. Within the exhibition we show two vivid examples of how this pioneering machine was used: to reveal how metal fatigue caused the loss of BOAC Flight 781, a de Havilland Comet jet airliner; and the Nobel prize winning work by Dorothy Hodgkin to use X rays to unravel the molecular structure of Vitamin B12.

On Midsummer Day 1948, the first prototype general-purpose computer, a true universal Turing machine, went into action at Manchester. And it was at Manchester University, when Turing was Deputy Director of the computing laboratory, that he wrote his highly influential 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.”

Turing had pondered how intelligence could arise in a machine, from operations which were themselves routine and, in a way, mindless. Perhaps it was possible to construct an artificial consciousness from blocks of cold mathematical logic.

He had a practical suggestion: if a computer could fool people into thinking that they were interacting with another person, rather than a machine, then it could be classified as possessing artificial intelligence. This simple idea has proved hugely influential. Since 1991, an annual competition based on the ‘Turing test’ has been held by the American inventor Hugh Loebner.

Turing was still haunted by the loss of Morcom. In his 1950 paper, he referred to research, perhaps by Samuel Soal in the UK, that there was ‘overwhelming’ statistical evidence of telepathy and remarked: “Once one has accepted them it does not seem a very big step to believe in ghosts.”

The next year Turing became interested in breaking the codes of life, furnishing a chemical basis for the means by which shape, structure and function arise in living things. It is known in biology as morphogenesis and had seemed so mysterious to some that it had fostered belief in vitalism, the idea that there was an élan vital that was distinct from physical or chemical forces.

Turing posed a basic question. How does an organism marshal a chemical soup into a biological structure or turn a spherical (symmetrical) bundle of identical cells into an (asymmetrical) organism? And why are there Fibonacci numbers (where each number is the sum of the previous two) in the leaf patterns of plants such as the close-packed spirals of sunflower heads? (our sister museum, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, has carried out a mass experiment to investigate). Turing’s ideas have since led to some impressive descriptions of pattern formation in Nature, from snail shells to snake skins.

With the help of Age UK, the Science Museum has consulted lesbian and gay people who were alive in the 1950s to understand the moral climate. What became clear was that Turing was remarkably open about his homosexuality, despite the repressive attitudes of the day. Perhaps his logic and his honesty made him feel that his orientation could never be seen as a crime. After the sheltered, liberal environments of Cambridge and Bletchley, he was in for a shock.

Homosexuality was a criminal offence at the time and in February 1952 Turing was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a man, then tried and convicted of “gross indecency”. To avoid prison, he accepted treatment with the female sex hormone oestrogen: ‘chemical castration’ intended to neutralise his libido. In 2009 Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister, issued a public apology for his treatment.

In that era, homosexual people were considered a security risk, being open to blackmail. Turing’s security clearance was withdrawn, so that he could no longer work for GCHQ, the post-war successor to Bletchley Park. He died soon after.

The precise circumstances leading to his demise on 7 June 1954, at home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, can never be known. But Turing had himself spoken of suicide and this was the conclusion of the coroner, following an inquest.

Next to Turing’s body was an apple, partly eaten. Years before, as some biographers have pointed out, Turing had gone to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the pioneering Disney film, in Cambridge, and was particularly taken with the scene where the Wicked Witch dangled an apple into a boiling cauldron: “Dip the apple in the brew. Let the Sleeping Death seep through”. One said that Turing had decided “to invest his departure from a world that had treated him shabbily with some of the gothic, eerie, colourful brilliance of a Disney film.”

The pathologist’s post-mortem report, reproduced in our new exhibition, suggests that the reality was more prosaic. The autopsy revealed that Turing’s stomach contained four ounces of fluid that smelt of bitter almonds: a solution of a cyanide salt. His death was not accidental: there was enough poison to fill a wine glass. Turing, thought the pathologist, had taken bites from the apple to make his last drink more palatable.

More than two decades earlier, when Turing was 17, he had had a vivid premonition of Morcom’s death, at the very instant that his first love was taken ill. Turing felt that this was an omen, one that lay beyond what science was able to explain.

Throughout his life he pursued the question of mind and body, believing that Morcom’s spirit lived on. Perhaps his suicide was one last experiment. On that cold, wet Whit Monday, did Turing take his own life in the hope that they would be together once more?

David Rooney is a Curator and Roger Highfield a Director at the Science Museum Group.
Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy, opened at the Science Museum on the 21 June 2012 and will run until 31 July 2013.