Tag Archives: Stephen Fry

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.

Mini, one of the Great British Innovations

Voting Opens for the Greatest British Innovation

Today, we’re inviting you to decide on the greatest British innovation of the last hundred years – from crystallography to quantum dots – and the innovation most likely to shape our future.

Alexander Fleming in his Lab, December 1943.

Penicillin, one of the Great British Innovations.
Image Credit: Credit © Daily Herald Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

British innovations are all around us. In the words of Prof Stephen Hawking (himself shortlisted for two innovations), “I am passionate about British innovations. They’ve kept me alive, enabled me to communicate and transported me around the world.”

With over a hundred innovations for you to choose from, we called in some favours and asked a few famous faces from the world of science (and beyond) what they would pick and why. We’ll be sharing these over the next week here on the blog, Twitter and Facebook, covering a decade’s worth of innovation each day.

Perhaps you agree with Stephen Fry that Alan Turing’s Universal Machine is our greatest innovation… listen to ‘Stephen Fry’ on Audioboo

Or do you believe Sir Paul Nurse is correct in championing the discovery of Penicillin? listen to ‘Sir Paul Nurse ’ on Audioboo

Or maybe you are convinced that Brian Eno is right to celebrate the World Wide Web? listen to ‘Brian Eno’ on Audioboo

Vote here for these innovations and more from today, and throughout National Science and Engineering Week, until 24th March.

You can even celebrate your favourite innovation via twitter using #GreatVote.

The Great British Innovation Vote, a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the last 100 years, was devised by the GREAT Britain campaign, the Science Museum Group, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, British Science Association, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Engineering UK.