14 November 2014
Computer Memories of Alan Turing
Thomas Lean, interviewer for An Oral History of British Science, writes:
This week the The Imitation Game, staring Benedict Cumberbatch as mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, and computer scientist Alan Turing, is released in British cinemas. 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. A brilliant but sometimes eccentric character, Turing has become one of the best known of the pioneers of computing. However, there are no know recordings of Alan Turing, his voice is lost to history, but several of his contemporaries were interviewed for An Oral History of British Science and recall working with him at Manchester.
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 what may have been Alan Turing's first computer program:
Listen at Voices of Science.
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.
Dai Edwards with the expanded Manchester 'Baby' computer, June 1949. Courtesy Express Newspapers.
As a research student Dai Edwards helped users to run the Manchester Mark 1 compute, in this clip he recalls setting the machine up for Alan Turing and building up a good working relationship.
Listen at Voices of Science.
Turing's 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 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. 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, but through the recollections of his former colleagues we can see him as his contemporaries did.