Ace in the pack: Alan Turing in Hampton
Alan Turing was one of the titans of science. Yet history has largely snubbed him. A century on from his birth, Amanda Hodges explores his crucial postwar years in Hampton
Few people as influential as Alan Turing have yet remained so obscure. Despite acclaim as the father of the modern computer and the pioneer of artificial intelligence, Turing’s name has never seeped into public consciousness in the way of Newton, Einstein or Darwin. Yet his legacy surely rivals that of these giants.
Born in London exactly a century ago, Turing was a man of contradictions: flamboyant yet diffident, retiring yet witty. Only the brilliance of his incisive mind, which made startling connections that eluded ordinary mortals, was beyond dispute. And in 1945, fresh from breaking ostensibly impenetrable German naval codes at Bletchley Park – the wartime communications HQ – this exceptional man joined the fledgling Maths department of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington.
Few colleagues knew of his recent exploits – pivotal work that significantly shortened the war. What they saw was a leading mathematician both unworldly and uncompromising; traits that would enhance his professional progress and yet eventually accelerate his personal decline.
In the 1930s, Turing had begun to consider the idea of a programmable machine, one to solve any mathematical problem with intelligence comparable to that of a human – the forerunner of our modern computer. In essence, it was to be a machine that turned thought processes into numbers. Until then, the word ‘computer’ would simply have conjured images of an individual beavering away in fervent calculation. Turing’s machine would change everything.
Habitually shabby – infamous for wearing trousers tied with rope at the waist – Turing was considered socially gauche, perhaps even what we’d now call autistic. Yet in 2011 his NPL assistant Michael Woodger recalled not only a gifted colleague, but a “gentle, private man” who had sent a kind note when Woodger returned to work after illness.
Living in a guest house, Ivy House, in Hampton High Street, Turing became a fine cross-country runner, knocking off the 18 miles to his mother in Guildford or running to meetings through Bushy Park. His best marathon time, 2 hours 46 mins, would trail that of the 1948 Olympic champion by only 11 minutes.
War had halted Turing’s embryonic plans for his computing machine, but now he enthusiastically embarked on development, producing a description approved by the NPL committee in 1946. Progress was frustratingly slow though, impoverished resources hampering production, and a disillusioned Turing was to leave in 1948. Eventually, however, the Electronics and Maths departments collaborated to build the Pilot ACE – Automatic Computing Engine – unveiled in 1950 as the first computer for hire.
“The major legacy of Turing’s work here,” reflects NPL archivist Clive Hall, “was the opportunity he gave colleagues to exploit the knowledge gained through the development of the ACE computer.”
Turing himself once said: “I believe that at the end of the century the use of words…will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”
Prescient words indeed.
Yet Turing’s final years provide a sad postscript to his outstanding professional accomplishment. Unabashedly homosexual at a time when Britain still considered it a criminal offence, he was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 and offered the option of chemical treatment to ‘cure’ him, as an alternative to prison. Suffering ill effects, humiliated and prohibited from some work, Turing was found dead by his landlady on June 8 1954, apparently poisoned by eating an apple laced with cyanide – a nod, perhaps, towards a favourite film, Snow White.
In 2009 the incumbent PM, Gordon Brown, formally apologised for Turing’s despicable treatment by a country that should have honoured, not reviled him. Ivy House now sports a plaque sponsored by the Hampton Society and there is a new Turing exhibition at the Science Museum. A century on from his birth, the restoration of Alan Turing’s reputation is finally and deservedly complete.