Continuing yesterday’s Second World War theme, today I took time out to go to the “Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s life and legacy” exhibition at the Science Museum in South Kensington (which runs until October 21st 2013).
Turing was a brilliant but eccentric, and troubled, mathematician, cryptanalyst, logician, philosopher and pioneer computer scientist, now widely regarded by those in the know as one of the more important and influential figures of the twentieth century. To the general public, he is perhaps best known not so much for his work on artificial intelligence and information technology as for that on military intelligence and code-breaking during the Second World War, at Bletchley Park. He and his equally oddball fellow academics at Bletchley Park (“Station X”) enjoyed the unlikely but more-or-less unqualified support of Churchill, who clearly understood more than most the vital significance of the intelligence they generated (“Ultra”). (At the same time, though, remarking, rather archly, that although he knew he had asked for no stone to be left unturned in putting together the team, he had not expected to be taken quite so literally). It has been estimated that the work of the team at “Station X” may have cut short the war by up to two to three years, and saved countless thousands of lives. Perhaps the team’s most notable successes were the breaking of the German Navy’s “Enigma” code, using a prototype computer called a “Bombe”, which was a decisive factor in the victory in the Battle of the Atlantic; and the breaking of the German Army High Command’s “Lorenz” code, using the first fully programmable computer “Colossus” (actually designed by the essentially entirely unsung Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers).
|Statue of Turing at Bletchley Park
Sadly, after the war, Turing was persecuted over his homosexuality to such an extent that he eventually took his own life, eating a poisoned apple, in 1954. This is ironic in that Turing’s research on “artificial intelligence” almost certainly came about, by way of his musings on “the nature of spirit”, as a result of his reaction to the tragic death of the fellow schoolboy he loved.
Note. On a related note, readers may be interested to know that there are memorial plaques to Turing in Maida Vale, on the house in which he was born in 1912, and in Richmond, on the house in which he lived from 1945-47. Also that much of the hardware used at Bletchley Park was manufactured at the former Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill.