Alan Turing

Alan Mathison Turing, OBE, FRS (pronounced /ˈtjʊərɪŋ/, TYOOR-ing; 23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954), was an English mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist. He was influential in the development of computer science and provided an influential formalisation of the concept of the algorithm and computation with the Turing machine. In 1999, Time Magazine named Turing as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century for his role in the creation of the modern computer, and stated: “The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.”  In 2002, Turing was ranked twenty-first on the BBC nationwide poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. His Turing test was a significant and characteristically provocative contribution to the debate regarding artificial intelligence.

During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre. For a time he was head of Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. He devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including the method of the bombe, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. After the war he worked at the National Physical Laboratory, where he created one of the first designs for a stored-program computer, the ACE.

Towards the end of his life Turing became interested in chemistry. He wrote a paper on the chemical basis of morphogenesis, and he predicted oscillating chemical reactions such as the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, which were first observed in the 1960s.

Turing’s homosexuality, which was illegal and considered to be a mental illness during his lifetime, resulted in a criminal prosecution in 1952. He accepted treatment with female hormones as an alternative to going to prison. He died in 1954, several weeks before his 42nd birthday, from an apparently self-administered cyanide poisoning, although his mother (and some others) considered his death to be accidental. On 10 September 2009, following an Internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for the way in which Turing was treated after the war.

During the Second World War, Turing was a main participant in the efforts at Bletchley Park to break German ciphers. Building on cryptanalysis work carried out in Poland by Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski from Cipher Bureau before the war, he contributed several insights into breaking both the Enigma machine and the Lorenz SZ 40/42 (a Teletype cipher attachment codenamed “Tunny” by the British), and was, for a time, head of Hut 8, the section responsible for reading German naval signals.

Since September 1938, Turing had been working part-time for the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS), the British code breaking organisation. He worked on the problem of the German Enigma machine, and collaborated with Dilly Knox, a senior GCCS codebreaker. On 4 September 1939, the day after the UK declared war on Germany, Turing reported to Bletchley Park, the wartime station of GCCS.

Within weeks of arriving at Bletchley Park, Turing had specified an electromechanical machine which could help break Enigma faster than bomba from 1932, the bombe, named after and building upon the original Polish-designed bomba. The bombe, with an enhancement suggested by mathematician Gordon Welchman, became one of the primary tools, and the major automated one, used to attack Enigma-protected message traffic.

Replica of a bombe machine

Professor Jack Good, cryptanalyst working at the time with Turing at Bletchley Park, later said: “Turing’s most important contribution, I think, was of part of the design of the bombe, the cryptanalytic machine. He had the idea that you could use, in effect, a theorem in logic which sounds to the untrained ear rather absurd; namely that from a contradiction, you can deduce everything.”

The bombe searched for possibly correct settings used for an Enigma message (i.e., rotor order, rotor settings, etc.), and used a suitable “crib”: a fragment of probable plaintext. For each possible setting of the rotors (which had of the order of 1019 states, or 1022 for the U-boat Enigmas which eventually had four rotors, compared with the usual Enigma variant’s three), the bombe performed a chain of logical deductions based on the crib, implemented electrically. The bombe detected when a contradiction had occurred, and ruled out that setting, moving onto the next. Most of the possible settings would cause contradictions and be discarded, leaving only a few to be investigated in detail. Turing’s bombe was first installed on 18 March 1940. Over two hundred bombes were in operation by the end of the war.


In December 1940, Turing solved the naval Enigma indicator system, which was more mathematically complex than the indicator systems used by the other services. Turing also invented a Bayesian statistical technique termed “Banburismus” to assist in breaking naval Enigma. Banburismus could rule out certain orders of the Enigma rotors, reducing time needed to test settings on the bombes. In 1941, Turing proposed marriage to Hut 8 co-worker Joan Clarke, a fellow mathematician, but their engagement was short-lived. After admitting his homosexuality to his fianceé, who was reportedly “unfazed” by the revelation, Turing decided that he could not go through with the marriage.

In July 1942, Turing devised a technique termed Turingismus or Turingery for use against the Lorenz cipher used in the Germans’ new Geheimschreiber machine (“secret writer”) which was one of those codenamed “Fish”. He also introduced the Fish team to Tommy Flowers who, under the guidance of Max Newman, went on to build the Colossus computer, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer, which replaced simpler prior machines (including the “Heath Robinson”) and whose superior speed allowed the brute-force decryption techniques to be applied usefully to the daily-changing cyphers.  A frequent misconception is that Turing was a key figure in the design of Colossus; this was not the case. While working at Bletchley, Turing, a talented long-distance runner, occasionally ran the 40 miles (64 km) to London when he was needed for high-level meetings.

Turing travelled to the United States in November 1942 and worked with U.S. Navy cryptanalysts on Naval Enigma and bombe construction in Washington, and assisted at Bell Labs with the development of secure speech devices. He returned to Bletchley Park in March 1943. During his absence, Hugh Alexander had officially assumed the position of head of Hut 8, although Alexander had been de facto head for some time—Turing having little interest in the day-to-day running of the section. Turing became a general consultant for cryptanalysis at Bletchley Park.

In the latter part of the war he moved to work at Hanslope Park, where he further developed his knowledge of electronics with the assistance of engineer Donald Bailey. Together they undertook the design and construction of a portable secure voice communications machine codenamed Delilah. It was intended for different applications, lacking capability for use with long-distance radio transmissions, and in any case, Delilah was completed too late to be used during the war. Though Turing demonstrated it to officials by encrypting/decrypting a recording of a Winston Churchill speech, Delilah was not adopted for use.

In 1945, Turing was awarded the OBE for his wartime services, but his work remained secret for many years. A biography published by the Royal Society shortly after his death recorded:

Three remarkable papers written just before the war, on three diverse mathematical subjects, show the quality of the work that might have been produced if he had settled down to work on some big problem at that critical time. For his work at the Foreign Office he was awarded the OBE.


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