Alan Turing: The man who thought up computers

Michael Lisinski


Hello everyone! Starting this month, this blog will feature a monthly tribute to a great academic from recent history, whose contributions enriched our lives in ways that may or may not be immediately obvious. I hope that you will be interested – and maybe even surprised – by the ways in which these academics still touch our everyday lives with their achievements.

Our first great academic is a man named Alan Turing – one of the pioneers of computer science.


Drawing courtesy of Ontario Tech University Communication student Cassy Goulding.


Born in London, England in 1912, the young Alan Mathison Turing enjoyed studying and experimenting according to his own interests instead of following his teachers’ instructions. Of course, this caused some of Turing’s teachers to become annoyed with him. But despite his struggles in the classroom, Turing remained committed to his studies.

In 1931 he started studying mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge. While there, he published “On Computable Numbers,” in which he outlined his then-abstract idea of an ‘automatic machine’ (or a-machine, later called a ‘Turing machine’.) The ideas in this paper would later prove to be greatly influential on modern computing. To underscore his accomplishment, remember that Turing at this time was writing about computers as hypothetical devices that couldn’t yet be made, while at the same time describing their functioning in detail.

Turing continued his work on mathematics and a-machines over the following years and received his PhD from Princeton University in 1938, but his work was then interrupted when he was contacted by Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School (later the Government Communications Headquarters.) When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Turing began working for the Government Code and Cypher School full-time at a place called Bletchley Park, cracking German Enigma codes.

The Germans were confident that their Enigma machine-encrypted messages could not be deciphered, so they used them in everything from their navy to their army to their secret service. It’s easy to see why: the Enigma machines’ configurations changed every day, so each new day yielded a staggering 159 million million million possible configurations. Try picturing that number in digits!

To help crack the Enigma codes, Turing and a man named Gordon Welchman designed the Bombe – not the explosive kind, but an electro-mechanical machine that would perform a systematic search of Enigma’s messages to find out the configurations with which they had been encoded. Over 200 bombes were used throughout the war, allowing the Allies to gather valuable intelligence. The wartime happenings at Bletchley Park would remain extremely secret until 1974, when the security embargo on its operations was lifted. Two papers that Turing wrote on mathematical approaches to code-breaking would not be released by the Government Communications Headquarters until even later, in April 2012.

After the war, Turing didn’t slow down. He started working at the National Physical Laboratory in London, where he developed a blueprint for a store-program computer called the Automatic Computing Engine. This was a detailed plan for what could have been the first modern computer if it had ever been built, but the project was considered so overly-ambitious that it was delayed approval. He then worked for the University of Manchester’s mathematics department, and published “Computing machinery and intelligence” in 1950. In this paper, Turing outlined what is now called the Turing test, measuring the conditions by which artificial intelligence can actually be considered intelligent. The test is simply whether a computer can persuade a number of humans that it itself is human over 30% of the time, over a series of five-minute conversations. It was finally passed by a supercomputer named Eugene – in June 2014.

Today, one could say that we live in a world partially molded by Alan Turing. His work on computers, code breaking, and artificial intelligence directly foreshadows the fields of computer science, information security, and software engineering. We still use his Turing test – or modified versions of it – while assessing artificial intelligence. And this is without mentioning his work on mathematics and mathematical logic. If history is to do justice to Alan Turing, we will continue to remember him as a visionary – someone who aided in the fight for freedom and who shaped history’s course. His life has most recently been portrayed in The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which was very recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, winning the 2014 Grolsch People's Choice Award.

As a final thought, take a moment to consider that you wouldn’t be able to read this – and in fact, that the University of Ontario Institute of Technology might not even exist – if it wasn’t for the brilliant mind of Alan Mathison Turing.


Sources & Additional Reading

I have only here scratched the surface of Alan Turing's academic contributions, and I've had even less space to cover his personal life. Therefore, I highly recommend further reading to those interested.


Alan Turing Biographies:

From the BBC


From the University of St. Andrews


Other sources:

Turing’s paper “On Computable Numbers”

How Enigma Worked

How the Bombe Worked

Turing’s paper “Computing machinery and intelligence”

Supercomputer passes the Turing test


Did reading about Alan Turing inspire you? Do you have a great project or paper that you would like to publish for the world to see? Ontario Tech has its own student journal – The Circle – to which students can submit their work. You can find it here:

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