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Turing was a British mathematician and computer scientist. His work on deciphering German codes during World War II, such as enigma, saved millions of lives. He is often referred to as the father of modern computing.

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Alan Turing

Alan Mathison Turing was a British computer scientist and mathematician. Turing is generally accepted as the father of modern computing. Turing was born in London, UK on June 23, 1912. Turing completed an undergraduate degree in Mathematics at King’s College, University of Cambridge. Turing’s paper, ‘On Computable Numbers with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem’, laid out the foundations for modern computing. The ideas of this paper laid the way for a universal Turing machine, a theoretical idealized early computer which could be used for mathematical calculations.

After finishing his studies at Cambridge, Turing moved to Princeton University, New Jersey to study ciphers and code breaking. When he returned to Britain, he joined the government in their code-breaking department, an organization now known as GCHQ (Government Communication Headquarters). There he worked on breaking the codes that the German military were using to cover up their communications. One machine in particular known, as the Enigma machine, was being used to transcribe coded messages and information. The Germans used it for different types of communications including those on the battlefield, at sea, in the air or even within their secret services. The Germans considered the code to be unbreakable. Turing used machines to break the German code, allowing Britain's forces to read the encoded messages.

Turing’s work, along with the work of his team at Bletchley Park, undoubtedly saved millions of lives as breaking the code allowed the Allies to understand messages that the Germans didn’t think could be understood. Some experts believe that the war could have gone on two to four years longer had the code not been broken. The information gathered from the deciphered messages was kept at the highest level of security and was only used sparingly to avoid alerting the Germans that their codes had been deciphered.

Towards the end of the war Turing worked on a telephone system that could encrypt spoken conversation. Although this was never used during the war, it gave him a taste for electronics. After the war, he went to work at the National Physical Laboratory (NP). Between 1945 and 1947 he worked on the design for the Automatic Computing Engine, the first design of a stored-program computer. He left the NPL to work as a reader at the University of Manchester, England. Turing worked with some of the early modern computers including the Manchester Mark 1, which was one of the world’s first stored-program computers. Here he created the famous Turing test. A test which is still used today to compare human and artificial intelligence. Turing’s work paved the way for the modern computers we surround ourselves with today. Computers are used in every aspect of our lives, in weather predictions, transport and healthcare. It is now difficult to imagine a world where computers don’t exist.

Turing was prosecuted for homosexual acts in 1952, as they were illegal at the time. In order to avoid prison, he accepted chemical castration. Alan Turing died aged 41. He died of cyanide poisoning, suspected to be suicide. In 2009 the British Government issued an official apology and he was offered a royal pardon.

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Alan Turing's Significant Accomplishments

  • Wrote ‘On Computable Numbers with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem’
  • Deciphered the Enigma code
  • Invented the Turing test
  • Designed and worked with the world’s earliest computers

Alan Turing Quotes

"We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done."

"I propose to consider the question, 'Can machines think?"

"Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine."

Learn more about people who have influenced history in our Picture Encyclopedia!
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