Thomas Lean, interviewer for Made in Britain, writes:
Today marks the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, and computer scientist. Widely recognised as one of the fathers of computer science and artificial intelligence, Turing's mathematics research in the 1930s led him to the concept of the Universal Turing Machine, an idea which predicted the ability of stored program computers to perform any task they were programmed to do. He spent the Second World War working on ultra top secret code-breaking at Bletchley Park, devising the Turing-Welchman Bombe, to automate part of the process of decrypting German codes. Postwar he joined the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) where he designed one of the first stored program computers, the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE).
Frustrated in his efforts to get ACE built at the NPL, Turing joined the University of Manchester, which had recently completed the world's first operational electronic stored program computer. At Manchester he became deputy director of the computing laboratory in 1949 and worked on early software development and mathematical biology. In 1950 he introduced the famous idea of the Turing Test to define a standard by which a machine could be deemed intelligent. This stream of ideas was tragically cut short. In 1952, at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain, Turing was convicted of having a sexual relationship with another man. As a result he lost his security clearance to work on code breaking, and was chemically castrated by hormone injections, whose side effects caused him even further discomfort. In 1954 he died, poisoned by a cyanide laced apple, in a probable case of suicide.
Popularly regarded as a brilliant but sometimes eccentric character, Turing has become one of the best known of the pioneers of computing. However, perhaps as a result of his early death, aged just 41, Turing sometimes feels like he belongs to a more distant age than he does. In fact many of Turing's contemporaries are still alive, and several of them have been interviewed as part of An Oral History Of British Science. We routinely ask interviewees to describe their colleagues, famous or otherwise, and unsurprisingly Turing has appeared several times in the supporting cast of the life stories on our project, such as in the following two clips from Geoff Tootill and Tony Brooker.
Geoff Tootill was one of the small team of electronic engineers who built the first stored program computer, at Manchester in 1948. In the following clip Geoff describes his surprise at having to correct some errors in program by Turing.
Computer scientist Tony Brooker joined the University of Manchester in 1951 to take over the day-to-day running of the computer user service from Turing. In the following clip discusses what it was like working with Turing at Manchester in the early 1950s.