History's HEROES? 1912 - 1954

Alan Turing

His world
  • Change on the way

    Prisoners of war

    The end of the Edwardian era.
    Alan Mathison Turing was born on 23 June 1912, two years before the outbreak of the First World War.

    Just before he was born two tragedies had happened: Captain Scott's Antarctic expedition and the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

    Looking back, these seem to mark the end of the lighthearted and jolly times we think of with the Edwardian era, and the beginning of a more serious and more tragic time.

    Europe goes to war
    Unrest in Europe was reaching a peak in the years when Alan was an infant. The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after five centuries of ruling over this area of Europe. The leading powers in Europe soon got involved, and when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, in June 1914, a general war in Europe broke out.
    World War 1 (the Great War) brought the horrors of war home to all the peoples of Europe, with a tremendous toll on the lives of their young men. Even those who survived did not escape from the nightmares of the horrors they had seen.  Many also died in the terrible flu outbreak of 1918 - 20 along with millions of other young people worldwide.

    Returning to turmoil
     The world the soldiers came back to had changed out of all recognition. Politically the world was in turmoil. Many of the leading powers before the war had vanished, replaced by republics. In Russia, a great Revolution had taken place in 1917 and the ideas that power should be taken, by force if necessary, by the working people spread.  Closer to home, the Easter Rising in Ireland eventually led to the establishment of the Irish Republic. The populations of the British (and other European) colonies were becoming ever more militant in their wish for independence - including India, where Alan's father worked.

    Changing technology
    Technology was on the advance; motor vehicles replaced horses, aeroplanes were used for warfare and then started to fly civilians, medical knowledge, which was learnt from the dreadful injuries of the war, could then be used in peacetime and the use of electricity was becoming widespread in homes as well as factories.
    Women get the vote
    The role of women was beginning to change. During the war, women had filled the jobs left by men away at front. They wanted the right to vote and were no longer willing to be second class citizens. In 1918, women over 30 were given the vote in the UK. Full suffrage had to wait until 1928.

    Social unrest
    During the 1920s, social unrest did not diminish and as the economic outlook got gradually worse, working men and women became more militant (there was a General Strike in 1926), and political views split. Many people supported the ideologies of either communism or fascism.

    A sheltered early life
    Through all this, the young Alan Turing would have lived life in something of a safe bubble. The lives of his family and their friends seemed very distant from most of the unrest of the post-war world.  His holidays were spent in Hastings, far from the unemployment and strikes of Industrial Britain. But, in these comfortable, old-fashioned surroundings, a unique boy was growing up who would help take the world into a future that the people around him could not even imagine.


  • Classics versus Science

    General Strike

    Early education
    Alan Turing was born into the upper middle class of Britain's class system.  Therefore, his education was at fee paying private schools rather than the state elementary schools which the majority of children from the working classes attended.  

    Alan displayed very early a deep interest in science and doing experiments
    This interest was not encouraged by his carers or his family. In fact, his mother was worried that this interest would stop him getting into the best public schools. At the time, the private schools had curricula biased heavily towards the classics and literature, rather than mathematics, science and technology. He appeared to 'dream' his way through preparatory (primary) school, building his own interests outside of school, reading books such as 'Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know'.  

    Public school
    However, he won a place at Sherborne, one of the most famous boarding schools in England. Here, the curriculum would have been easily recognised by any Victorian boy at a public school, and the games of rugby and cricket, both developed in Victorian times, were the main sports.

    Alan found the curriculum very limited and received very poor reports. He found teams sports difficult and preferred solitary running.  Without meaning to be one, he was seen as a rebel - his head teacher reported that he was 'the sort of boy who is bound to be a problem for any school or community.' This was an early sign of the feelings that some in society would have about him later.

    A very long ride
    His first day at Sherborne also happened to be the first day of the General Strike in Britain. This meant that there were no buses or trains running. Alan was so determined to get to school that he rode his bicycle for the 60 miles from his home in Southampton to the school.  This determination and persistence were also important parts of Alan's character, which would stand him in good stead during World War 2.
    Like minds
    Alan felt very isolated at school - his peers did not have the same interests as he and he spent a lot of time alone.  In 1927, his grandfather gave him a copy of Einstein's 'General Theory of Relativity', which he read, and his notebook from that time shows an incredible depth of understanding by this 15 year old boy. However, he continued to feel very solitary until he entered the 6th form and met Christopher Morcom, another brilliant boy who shared his passion for maths and science. Christopher recognised how clever Alan really was and together they ate and breathed mathematics, astronomy, physics and chemistry.
    They both applied for Cambridge in 1929 and then, early in 1930, Christopher died suddenly. Alan was heart broken. His feelings for Christopher had been deeper than friendship and his grief took over his thoughts and actions for the next few years. He decided he would carry on the work they had discussed together and, in 1931, won a scholarship to King's College Cambridge to study mathematics.
    Training the mind and body
    Here, for the first time in Alan's life, the atmosphere did not restrict him and actually encouraged him to think widely and look at different ideas. Alan blossomed as an intellectual and as a person. His sexuality was not a problem at King's College and his work went really well. He found relaxation in rowing and running and became a very fine athlete, almost reaching Olympic standard later in life.

    At King's College he developed a deep interest in mathematical logic
    This would a little later lead him towards the idea of  'intelligent machines' and to eventually become the ‘father' of modern computing. He graduated with distinction and was awarded a research grant, followed later by a 'Fellowship', which allowed him continue his studies and research at Cambridge. 

  • "This Country is now at war with Germany"

    Unrest in Europe
    Alan Turing left university with a first class degree in 1934. The whole world was still in the grip of a deep economic depression started by the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Millions of working men in Britain, America and other countries were unemployed, unable to earn an income for their families. They and their wives and children were forced to live on tiny payments doled out to them by their governments, or even on soup kitchens organized by charities. Huge numbers of people lived in terrible poverty.

    Totalitarian governments
    In one country, however, things were getting better quickly for many people. In Germany, the Nazi Party had come to power and bulldozed all opposition out of the way but had put millions of Germans back to work in factories, in mines, and on bulding roads and railways. In Russia, at the same time, mass industrialization meant that there was no unemployment problem. It is no wonder that workers in Britain and America looked with envy at the working classes in Germany and Russia and were tempted by the ideas of Nazism or Communism.

    Alan had very little to do with this wider world, apart from an interest in pacifism, like many intellectuals, in the early 1930s. He continued to live comfortably as a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge. However, he was developing mathematical ideas which would, in due course, help to  bring down the Nazi regime.

    The Turing Machine
    Alan became interested in a branch of mathematics that led him to imagine the idea of a machine which, by obeying a set of instructions written according to a set of "universal" laws, could do any calculation required of it. He created an imaginary machine (now called the Turing machine), which would be able do the work of any special-purpose machine "if a tape bearing suitable instructions is inserted into it". The paper which he published containing these ideas has proved to be of immense importance to mathematics and computer science ever since.

    As a result of this work, Alan was invited to become a graduate student of Princeton University in America, working with some of the best mathematicians in the world at that time. 

    Code breaking
    Meanwhile, Nazism was growing in Germany, and Europe moved unstoppably towards war. Soon after Alan's return to Cambridge University, in 1938, he was contacted by the Government Code and Cypher School, (which was not a school of course, but a highly secret organization under MI6), who asked him to help them in their work on breaking the German Enigma codes.

    The Enigma Machines
    The Enigma machines had been developed by a German scientist at the end of World War 1, and gradually refined during the 20s.  When Hitler began building up the German military forces for war in the 1930s, the Enigma machines were used by the German High command to send coded messages to army units, to the Luftwaffe and most importantly to the U-boat fleets patrolling the Atlantic.

    Readying for war
    As Britain reluctantly got ready for the coming war, planes, tanks and ships were built for the expanding armed services and millions of workers found themselves back in work. Their lives improved greatly, but the shadow of war, so much feared after the horrors of the trenches in World War 1, created a dread of what was to come. Finally, on 3rd September 1939, war was declared.

    "The backroom"
    In the war, academics were drafted into the intelligence services in large numbers. Some studied maps and scraps of information, trying to work out what the enemy was up to, while scientists worked in research centres developing new weapons. They were the "boffins", the backroom boys and girls, whose work went on in total secrecy and which everyone, even those risking their lives in battle, knew to be of the greatest importance in winning the war.

    Technological war
    For this was a technological war as never before. New planes, ever faster and with longer range, flew; new tanks, larger and stronger, trundled onto the battlefields; new anti-submarine weapons, new radar, new rockets, new bombs ...new atom bombs. All the nations engaged in the fighting put huge effort in trying to develop war-winning technologies.

    All these developments helped to shape, not only the war, but the post-war world as well.
    The huge advance in telecommunications during the war years, laid the foundations for the entertainment and communication revolution in the 1950s and 60s. Medical improvements, such as penicillin, had a huge influence on post-war healthcare. Developments in aviation led to the expansion of air travel. Development of atomic bombs led to the Cold War. And, more than any other project, we haveTuring's work to thank for the digital world of the1980s onwards.

    Bletchley Park
    When war was declared, Alan Turing, with other famous cryptologists of the Government Code and Cypher School  moved to Bletchley Park. This was a converted country house surrounded by a growing collection of Nissan huts. At the start of the war, the staff numbered 150. By 1942 this number had grown to 3,500. By the end of the war, 10,000 people worked at Bletchley - all sworn to secrecy.

    Alan was there at the very start, arriving on 4th September, the day after war was declared. Hut 8 became his place of work. He was a brilliant mathematician and he had a good understanding of machines; these two things made his work key to the success of the code breaking efforts.

    The war against the U-boats
    Alan was deeply involved in the work of cracking the German Enigma codes. The cracking of these codes by Alan Turing and his colleagues, men such as Dilly Knox, had its greatest effect on the war against the U-boats. Breaking the codes meant that they could give the Admiralty information about where U-boats were; the Admiralty could then give the convoys routes away from trouble.

    The Allies had come close to losing the Battle of the Atlantic and, without the help of Alan and his colleagues, the whole war might very well have been lost.

    Turing enjoyed his work at Bletchley, among other people who were dedicated, like himself 
    He was called ‘the Prof' and worked tirelessly alongside his, mostly young, colleagues. He became good friends with Joan Clarke and proposed marriage, but then realised it would not be fair to her and told her he was homosexual and broke off the engagement.

    Helping shape Computers and the Information Age
    Alan Turing also worked with electronics experts trying to speed up the mechanical operations needed by the code breaking machines.  In his mind, a modern computer was beginning to take shape - a machine using electronic technology that could operate on any logical process.

    He was involved in the building of the Colossus machines, which speeded up the deciphering of coded messages to hundreds a day. These were the first programmable computers and the ancestors of all later mainframe computers.

    At the end of the war, Alan Turing received an OBE for his highly important war work, even though no-one outside of the Intelligence Services had any idea what he had been doing.

  • Faster, bigger and more intelligent

    Alan Turing Memorial

    The Cold War
    The years after the Second World War were ones in which great scientific and technical advances were made. At that time, the governments of the USA and Russia were great rivals. They were both trying to become the leading nation on Earth. To help them do this, each country was always trying to make better equipment than the other one.
    Britain was allied to America, so British and American scientists worked closely together. Scientists from other countries such as France and Germany were also involved.  Much of the work went on in great secrecy.

    Aircraft became much faster during these years.
    The first jet to fly faster than the speed of sound did so in 1947. Jet fighters and bombers became larger and faster. Passenger aircraft also increased in speed. In 1952, the first jet airliner, the Comet, began flying, although it soon had to be grounded after some crashes.
    Rockets became more and more powerful, so that a few years later they were able to take men into space.
    Atom bombs were replaced by the much more destructive hydrogen bombs as the most dangerous weapons on the planet. These caused ordinary people the most worry.
    People and Space
    In 1952, a huge laboratory, called CERN, was opened in Switzerland. Ever since, scientists there have continued to learn more and more about the tiniest particles in the universe.

    The building of the first radio telescopes soon led to great discoveries in astronomy, and by 1955, nuclear power stations were being built.
    In 1953, a British biologist called Francis Crick, along with his American colleague, James Watson, discovered DNA. DNA is what makes animals and plants different from one another.

    Modern Computers are developed
    In Alan Turing's field, these years were the time in which modern computers first made their appearance. Today's computers store information separately from the computer itself. This means that one computer can run different programs.  Alan was the first to come up with this idea, before the Second World War.
    After the war, each year brought bigger and better computers in Britain and America, with names like ENIAC, EDVAC, BINAC and UNIVAC. The UNIVAC, built in 1950, was the first proper modern computer. It was the first to use a computer language.

    Towards the Possibility of Artificial Intelligence
    By then, Alan Turing was working at Manchester University and turning his attention to Artificial Intelligence.  He was convinced that computers could be made to 'learn' and came up with a test which would discover if a computer could be called 'intelligent'.  To perform the test, two humans and a computer are each put in different locations. One human is the 'interrogator' who holds 'conversations' with both the human and computer. Alan's theory was that a computer could be said to "think" if the interrogator could not decide which conversation was with a computer and which with the human - the computer would then have 'fooled' the interrogator into thinking that their conversation was with another human. (No computer has, as yet, passed the Turing test!) Alan also designed a program for a computer to play chess - many, many years before there was any computer powerful enough to run the program!

    The ancestors of Today's Devices
    The earliest computers had used vacuum tubes to generate electrical signals. These were large and heavy, used a lot of power, and soon overheated. By 1950, these were being replaced by transistors, which were much smaller, did not overheat and used far less power. Even so, a typical computer of this time was the size of large room. It needed a lot of technicians to keep it running, and only highly-trained experts knew how to feed the information (or data) in. 

    A computer at this time was also very expensive. The cheapest of these machines cost more than £100,000 (a huge amount of money then). There were only a few around in the world, mostly in large universities or government departments. They were used to tackle tough mathematical problems.
    Despite all this, these were the ancestors of today's PCs, laptops, video games machines and mobile phones and the ideas for all this modern technology were being developed back then, by Alan Turing.

  • Conformity, change and the cold war

    alan turingDuring Alan Turing's lifetime, the world and society and the way people thought, changed greatly.
    When he was born,  Britain had a very rigid class system, which made the opportunities in life very unequal. Women were still second class citizens and expected to take an interest in only domestic affairs and child rearing. Ruling the country and taking an interest in affairs of state at home and abroad was only for men. Working people were expected to 'know their place' and be content to work for employers and masters who made all the decisions about their working life.

    People were expected to conform to what was considered the right way to think, believe and behave
    From the way you dressed and you talked to the way they interacted with other people, there were 'norms' or 'standards' to which you were expected to confirm in 'polite society'. The authorities were not happy about people who did not conform. Criminals were harshly treated and there were a lot of criminal offences. Unmarried mothers were looked down upon and sexual relationships between men illegal. Attitudes were very fixed. From his school days onwards, Alan's interests were different from the those expected, from his subject interests (sciences not classics) to his firiendships. This made him an innovator in his work but also a difficult fit in a rigid society, expect at University where attitides were broader and during his work at places like Bletchley Park where his genius was needed and appreciated.

    The two world wars brought about tremendous changes.
    Universal suffrage (all men and women over 21 being able to vote without having to own land or wealth) was achieved in 1928.  Alan's young years saw a huge increase in the numbers of working people joining unions and demanding a say in their conditions of work. This did not impinge upon Alan's sheltered world very much until the strike of 1926 meant he had to cycle 60 miles if her were to start his new school on time. The Labour party began to become a force in British politics. Up until now, the country's rulers had been from the upper classes who inherited their wealth and status. A few people from the middle and working classes started to stand, and win seats, for Parliament.

    Society started to become more more aware of people's rights as human beings
    Women and people from working class backgrounds began to be accepted into higher education and universities, although the numbers would still have been small whilst Alan was there. Slowly, more careers became open to them, although society still expected women to make home and marriage their most important career - except during periods of war! Women made up the majority of personnel at Bletchley Park whilst Alan Turing was there.

    Views on capital punishment were changing; pregnant women were no longer hanged and from 1933 neither was anyone under 18 years of age. Calls were being made to abolish capital punishment altogether after the war - in 1948, the House of Lords overruled the House of Commons' attempt to have a trial period without capital punishment.

    Society and sexuality
    One thing that had not really changed in Alan Turing's time was how people viewed homosexuality. Homosexuality had been punishable by death until 1865 when the law was replaced to one preventing 'gross indecency' between males (women were not included). However, it was still illegal in the UK during Alan Turing's lifetime and most homosexuals hid their sexuality for fear, not only of the law, but of other people's attitudes. Many married in an attempt to fit in with what was considered a 'normal' life. Alan himself proposed to his friend and co-worker, Joan Clarke; but, being an honourable man he broke it off, telling her of his homosexuality.

    During the early 20th century, homosexuality was often regarded as a medical or emotional 'problem'
    Alan Turing was arrested for 'gross indecency' after a raltionship with another man was discovered, when that man tried to rob him. He was tried and given a suspended sentence on condition that he took medication to try to 'cure' his sexuality. At that time various 'treatments' had been tried out to 'cure' men or remove their desires. The medication made him ill and very depressed. 

    The cold war and fear of spies
    After the Second World War, a struggle for dominance between the capitalist countries of the West, led by the USA, and the communist bloc in the East, led by the USSR, developed into the 'cold war'. Each side was trying to better the other with technology and weapons; and each side developed a huge network of spies, many of whom were recruited from the other side. Any person who the authorities thought might be able to be recruited by the other side (maybe through blackmail) was carefully watched and barred from holding any important posts.

    This atmosphere of distrust was very great in the early 1950's due to the discovery of some British spies in important government departments,

    Alan has his security clearance removed
    Despite the trial and his homosexuality being known, the government decided he might be in danger of being recruited by 'the enemy' and took away his 'security clearance'. This meant he was no longer able to work on any government projects at all. Alan was devastated; working  on artificial intelligence and computer technology were his main interests in life.

    Death from cyanide poisoning
    Despite trying to find other projects and travelling, he felt that everything that he valued had been taken from him. Following his death on 8th June 1954, the post-mortem revealed that his death had been caused by cyanide poisoning and the inquest decided that he had committed suicide.

    13 years after Alan's death, homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK and gay people were gradually accepted as 'normal' in society.


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