Code Breaker – Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy at The V&A

Mathematician, philosopher, inventor, dreamer, code breaker – Alan Turing was all of these things and more.  He was at the forefront of the development of a brand new technology, one that would transform the 20th century and has now become so intertwined with people’s everyday lives, it is hard to imagine a world without it.  I am, of course, talking about the computer.

Once just a term to denote someone who ‘computes’ numbers, the term computer was then applied to mechanical computing machines, but has now come to mean so much more.

Before Alan Turing’s pioneering work in the 1940’s and 50’s there were a few job specific computers – the perfect example being bombsight equipment used on aircraft during the second world war, which calculated the time to drop a bomb dependant on the input of specific data such as wind speed, distance from target and height of the aircraft.  Turing envisioned developing a single computer which was not restricted to one function, but could be used as a universal problem solving device and even think for itself.  He proposed his theories in a mathematics paper written in 1936, and even today we are still grappling with the scope of his ideas.

What was a theory in 1936 was set on the road to reality by the coming of the second world war and the desperate need to intercept Nazi radio messages sent between command stations and the U-boats in the Atlantic via the Enigma encryption machines.  As Great Britain stood alone against the aggressor she was gradually being strangulated, cut off from food and fuel by the devastating U-boat attacks on supply ships traversing the Atlantic.  A solution had to be found, a way to read those messages before their commands were implemented, or it would have been the end of democracy in the West.

Our salvation came in two parts – one part through mathematical genius, the other by sheer luck.  The luck came with the capture of a U-boat containing an undamaged Enigma machine and it’s all important cypher book.  The genius was Alan Turing.  He designed a electro-mechanical decryption device called a ‘bombe’ (which was later refined by Gordon Welchman).  It was a significant development from a Polish device called a ‘bomba kryptologiczna’ or a ‘cryptologic bomb’ and was capable of searching though a vast amount of combinations, effectively doing the job of hundreds of workers with vastly more precision.  Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire was the base for the decoding operation, but due to their importance to the war effort, around two hundred machines were built and some were placed at out-stations (Adstock, Gayhurst, Wavendon, Stanmore and Eastcote) in case of bombing.  All the bombe’s were destroyed after the war but a working version has been reconstructed at Bletchley Park – the exhibition had a single drum on display.

After the war he returned to his computer theories and was asked to help develop a computer for the National Physical Laboratory (as it says on their website:- “NPL is the UK’s National Measurement Institute, and is a world-leading centre of excellence in developing and applying the most accurate measurement standards, science and technology available”; and here is an interesting list of some of the science carried out since it’s founding in 1900:- History of NPL).

Alan Turing wrote the specification for the first universal computer in 1945, but left the project through frustration in 1948 due to persistent delays and changes in the project’s direction.  The computer, which was called the Automatic Computing Engine (or ACE) was finished in 1950 without him.  It was used for many years by external customers in need of its computing power and even became refered to as Turing’s ‘electronic brain’.  The power of the ACE was put to effective use to assist in calculations for the crash investigators when trying to find the cause of the Comet failures – a section of the fuselage recovered from he bed of the Mediterranean Sea and sent to Farnborough Royal Aircraft Establishment for investigation, was on display.  The ACE was also among a number of computers used to assist Dorothy Hodgkin’s work on finding the molecular structure of insulin and vitamins.  The computer was truly becoming ‘Universal’.

It seems a common thread through human history that people with great talents or skills are often victimised by the society they are contributing towards – Alan Turing was homosexual and in the 40’s and 50’s this was illegal and seen as a perversion which needed to be cured.  Charged with gross indecency in 1952 Alan Turing opted for injections of estrogen instead of a jail sentence (it was thought to be a way of controlling male sexual desires).  By 1954 he was dead.

After an autopsy the verdict for the cause of death was given as Suicide – cyanide was found in the kitchen and a half eaten apple was found by his bed.  Recently this explanation has been questioned – he had stopped taking the estrogen a year previously and had not been excessively depressed by the sentence, in fact he had been making plans for things to do when he returned to work after his holiday weekend.  He did not leave a suicide note and he often ate an apple before going to bed, which he regularly left unfinished (the apple was not tested for cyanide).  He had been using potassium cyanide to dissolve gold in a tiny spare room and it is suggested that his death was more consistent with inhalation than ingestion – in other words, it was probably an unfortunate accident rather than an intended act.

Due to the sensitivity of the material and the top-secret nature of much of the work he carried out, it has only been since the 1970’s that his significant contribution during the war, and that of the staff of Bletchley Park, has been publicly known – it’s wasn’t until the 1970’s that the Science Museum was the first to put an Enigma machine on display anywhere in the world.  It has been even more recently (2009) that the British government has officially apologised for his conviction and treatment for homosexuality.

As for the exhibition, I found the exhibits interesting and Alan Turing is a fascinating and complex character, but it felt a little simplistic as a whole, patchy and overall far too small for such an important figure in the development of computing.  His influence is still celebrated today with the Turing Prize, which has been awarded annually since 1966 for significant contributions to the advancement of computing and is widely regarded as the computing equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

I assume that due to the inherent complexity of much of his work, a more in-depth exhibition was not possible and may have lost the impact of his theories and achievements.  It is fascinating to think that it was only a few years ago the last of his papers were released because the ideas they contained were still classed as sensitive to national security over fifty years after his death.  Although I would definitely recommend you visit this exhibition (and the excellent Science Museum as a whole) I do feel it could have delved a little deeper – the man deserves all the recognition he has only now posthumously received.


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