Alan Turing: Biography, Accomplishments and Death

British mathematician, Alan Turing

Alan Turing (1912-1954) – was a British mathematician and pioneer of modern computing.

Alan Turing was an English mathematician who pioneered the study of computer science. In the world of artificial intelligence, Turing is considered a great father. His versatile brain also made significant contributions in biology, cryptanalysis, and philosophy.


Born in London on 23rd June 1912, Turing was the son of Julius Turing and Sara Turing. His dad was a civil servant who worked in British India before relocating to England with his wife to raise up their children there. They settled at Maida Vale in London. There, they were blessed with the birth of a future scientific genius, Alan Turing.

Early Life and Education

Turing exhibited great academic abilities at a young age. He was an absolute prodigy. Mr. and Mrs. Turing bought a house in the county of Surrey, Guildford. It became a vacation home for Alan Turing when school was not in session.

At 13-years-old, Turing studied at the Sherbone School. His passion for math and science was evident from day one. In 1932, Turing proceeded to the King’s College (now Cambridge University) and studied there for three years. His thesis paper successfully proved a though mathematical theory. The college made him a fellow soon after his graduation.

He published a groundbreaking paper in 1936. It was on computable numbers and their applications. Out of his paper, Turing proposed a computing machine known as “Universal Turing Machine”. Basically, it was a theoretical device which could perform calculations. His idea established the foundation of modern computers.

To obtain his PhD., Turing enrolled at an advance study institution in Princeton. He studied math and coding courses for two years and acquired his PhD. in 1938. Turing went back to Cambridge to work with a code-cracking institution – “the Government Code and Cypher School”.

Code-Breaking during World War II

In 1939, Germany ignited the Second World War. The United Kingdom and its allies were a target to Adolf Hitler’s forces. Upon joining the government code breakers, Alan Turing moved to warzones to work on warfare information machines. Britain and France were reliably informed about a code-breaking machine called Enigma, which was employed by German military officers to secure their radio transmissions.

In 1932, encryption experts from Poland were able to decipher the inner circuitry of the Enigma. About 6 years later, they designed a machine named “Bomba” to crack codes. The Bomba became helpless when Germany updated their operation procedures in 1940. All that while, Alan Turing and others had completed works on a smarter code-breaking machine. They called it the “Bombe”. The Bombe became an intelligent life-saving machine which was used by the Allies to intercept and decrypt radio transmissions from the enemies. Stationed at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing and his co-workers decoded 39000 enemy messages per month.

As time went on, the Bombe broke more than 80,000 German codes per month. Following his code-breaking accomplishments during World War II, Alan Turing was made OBE (“Order of the British Empire”).

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Computer Developer, National Physical Laboratory

With World War II over, Alan Turing was called to duty by the National Physical Lab (NPL). Situated in London, the NPL wanted to partner with Alan Turing to design a computer. Their collaboration led to the successful design of the electronic digital computer, the ACE (“automatic computing engine”). The ACE was the first of its kind. According to Turing’s initial plan of design, the ACE would have been more powerful in-memory than the pilot one he built with the NPL engineers in 1950. The NPL engineers were pessimistic about the feasibility of Turing’s proposed design.

The NPL team were a bit slow for Turing’s liking. Consequently, a Manchester University team beat the NPL to make the first stored-program computer. He joined the Manchester University team and became the director of the computer development program. His theoretical proposal about the “Universal Turing Machine” was about to translate into a real product. Turing was tasked with designing the input and output systems for the computer. In 1951, he developed a program manual for the first digital computer (“the Ferranti Mark I”).

Alan Turing’s Work on Artificial Intelligence

Alan Turning was part of the pioneers of artificial intelligence.  He advocated the incorporation of human-level intelligence into machines. Turing propounded that the human brain is comparable to a digital machine; citing the cortex as an example of a brain part that is disorganized at birth but gets more organized with time. Alan Turing also proposed the “Turing Test” to serve as a tool for checking the thinking capacity of artificial computers. This has now become a key concept in artificial intelligence.

Mathematical Solutions – Entscheidungsproblem

Mathematicians at the time sought answers for an effective problem-solving technique that would determine a math which was provable within certain systems; this was the Entscheidungsproblem. Turing and his collaborator’s (Church) work showed that such mathematical systems could not exist. Their breakthrough helped to overturn age-old mathematical beliefs in the “decision method”. Turing conceptualized his Universal Turing Machine while he pieced together the math of the Entscheidungs problem.

Homosexual Conviction and Death

Alan Turing had a sexual orientation which wasn’t legal in the U.K during his time. In 1952, he was convicted of engaging in a homosexual affair with a young man. Charged for an indecent act, Turing was asked to choose between imprisonment and medical treatment to kill his libido. He chose the latter and it rendered him impotent for the rest of his life; a wicked treatment of a gay genius. Now regarded as an outcast, Turing lost his code-breaking job at the government institute.

Two years later (in 1954), at the age of 41, he allegedly committed suicide by cyanide poisoning. Facts are still not clear whether his act was intentional or accidental. The unfair treatment of a hero such as Turing was met with growing disapproval. In 2009, this forced top U.K leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II to officially render an apology while nullifying his conviction.

Turing left behind uncompleted biological papers about the chemical structure of living things.

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