Tag Archives: Turing

#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.

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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.