Alan Mathison Turing OBE FRS ( 23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954) was an English mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist. Turing was highly influential in the development of theoretical computer science, providing a formalisation of the concepts of algorithm and computation with the Turing machine, which can be considered a model of a general-purpose computer. Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. Despite these accomplishments, he was never fully recognised in his home country during his lifetime due to the prevalence of homophobia at the time and because much of his work was covered by the Official Secrets Act.
During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre that produced Ultra intelligence. For a time he led Hut 8, the section that was responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. Here, he devised a number of techniques for speeding the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine.
Turing played a crucial role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic, and in so doing helped win the war. Due to the problems of counterfactual history, it is hard to estimate the precise effect Ultra intelligence had on the war, but at the upper end it has been estimated that this work shortened the war in Europe by more than two years and saved over 14 million lives.
After the war, Turing worked at the National Physical Laboratory, where he designed the Automatic Computing Engine. The Automatic Computing Engine was one of the first designs for a stored-program computer. In 1948, Turing joined Max Newman’s Computing Machine Laboratory, at the Victoria University of Manchester, where he helped develop the Manchester computers and became interested in mathematical biology. He wrote a paper on the chemical basis of morphogenesis and predicted oscillating chemical reactions such as the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, first observed in the 1960s.
Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts; the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 had mandated that “gross indecency” was a criminal offence in the UK. He accepted chemical castration treatment, with DES, as an alternative to prison. Turing died in 1954, 16 days before his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning. An inquest determined his death as a suicide, but it has been noted that the known evidence is also consistent with accidental poisoning.
In 2009, following an Internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated”. Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous pardon in 2013. The “Alan Turing law” is now an informal term for a 2017 law in the United Kingdom that retroactively pardoned men cautioned or convicted under historical legislation that outlawed homosexual acts.
When Turing returned to Cambridge, he attended lectures given in 1939 by Ludwig Wittgenstein about the foundations of mathematics. The lectures have been reconstructed verbatim, including interjections from Turing and other students, from students’ notes. Turing and Wittgenstein argued and disagreed, with Turing defending formalism and Wittgenstein propounding his view that mathematics does not discover any absolute truths, but rather invents them.
During the Second World War, Turing was a leading participant in the breaking of German ciphers at Bletchley Park. The historian and wartime codebreaker Asa Briggs has said, “You needed exceptional talent, you needed genius at Bletchley and Turing’s was that genius.”
From September 1938, Turing worked part-time with the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), the British codebreaking organisation. He concentrated on cryptanalysis of the Enigma cipher machine used by Nazi Germany, together with Dilly Knox, a senior GC&CS codebreaker. Soon after the July 1939 meeting near Warsaw at which the Polish Cipher Bureau gave the British and French details of the wiring of Enigma machine’s rotors and their method of decrypting Enigma machine‘s messages, Turing and Knox developed a broader solution. The Polish method relied on an insecure indicator procedure that the Germans were likely to change, which they in fact did in May 1940. Turing’s approach was more general, using crib-based decryption for which he produced the functional specification of the bombe (an improvement on the Polish Bomba).Two cottages in the stable yard at Bletchley Park. Turing worked here in 1939 and 1940, before moving to Hut 8.
On 4 September 1939, the day after the UK declared war on Germany, Turing reported to Bletchley Park, the wartime station of GC&CS. Specifying the bombe was the first of five major cryptanalytical advances that Turing made during the war. The others were: deducing the indicator procedure used by the German navy; developing a statistical procedure dubbed Banburismus for making much more efficient use of the bombes; developing a procedure dubbed Turingery for working out the cam settings of the wheels of the Lorenz SZ 40/42 (Tunny) cipher machine and, towards the end of the war, the development of a portable secure voice scrambler at Hanslope Park that was codenamed Delilah.
By using statistical techniques to optimise the trial of different possibilities in the code breaking process, Turing made an innovative contribution to the subject. He wrote two papers discussing mathematical approaches, titled The Applications of Probability to Cryptography and Paper on Statistics of Repetitions, which were of such value to GC&CS and its successor GCHQ that they were not released to the UK National Archives until April 2012, shortly before the centenary of his birth. A GCHQ mathematician, “who identified himself only as Richard,” said at the time that the fact that the contents had been restricted for some 70 years demonstrated their importance, and their relevance to post-war cryptanalysis:
[He] said the fact that the contents had been restricted “shows what a tremendous importance it has in the foundations of our subject”. … The papers detailed using “mathematical analysis to try and determine which are the more likely settings so that they can be tried as quickly as possible.” … Richard said that GCHQ had now “squeezed the juice” out of the two papers and was “happy for them to be released into the public domain”.
Turing had a reputation for eccentricity at Bletchley Park. He was known to his colleagues as “Prof” and his treatise on Enigma was known as the “Prof’s Book”. According to historian Ronald Lewin, Jack Good, a cryptanalyst who worked with Turing, said of his colleague:
In the first week of June each year he would get a bad attack of hay fever, and he would cycle to the office wearing a service gas mask to keep the pollen off. His bicycle had a fault: the chain would come off at regular intervals. Instead of having it mended he would count the number of times the pedals went round and would get off the bicycle in time to adjust the chain by hand. Another of his eccentricities is that he chained his mug to the radiator pipes to prevent it being stolen.
It is a rare experience to meet an authentic genius. Those of us privileged to inhabit the world of scholarship are familiar with the intellectual stimulation furnished by talented colleagues. We can admire the ideas they share with us and are usually able to understand their source; we may even often believe that we ourselves could have created such concepts and originated such thoughts. However, the experience of sharing the intellectual life of a genius is entirely different; one realizes that one is in the presence of an intelligence, a sensibility of such profundity and originality that one is filled with wonder and excitement. Alan Turing was such a genius, and those, like myself, who had the astonishing and unexpected opportunity, created by the strange exigencies of the Second World War, to be able to count Turing as colleague and friend will never forget that experience, nor can we ever lose its immense benefit to us.
While working at Bletchley, Turing, who was a talented long-distance runner, occasionally ran the 40 miles (64 km) to London when he was needed for meetings, and he was capable of world-class marathon standards. Turing tried out for the 1948 British Olympic team but he was hampered by an injury. His tryout time for the marathon was only 11 minutes slower than British silver medallist Thomas Richards’ Olympic race time of 2 hours 35 minutes. He was Walton Athletic Club’s best runner, a fact discovered when he passed the group while running alone.
Main article: Bombe
Within weeks of arriving at Bletchley Park, Turing had specified an electromechanical machine called the bombe, which could break Enigma more effectively than the Polish bomba kryptologiczna, from which its name was derived. 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-enciphered messages.A complete and working replica of a bombe now at The National Museum of Computing on Bletchley Park
The bombe searched for possible correct settings used for an Enigma message (i.e., rotor order, rotor settings and plugboard settings) using a suitable crib: a fragment of probable plaintext. For each possible setting of the rotors (which had on the order of 1019 states, or 1022 states for the four-rotor U-boat variant), the bombe performed a chain of logical deductions based on the crib, implemented electromechanically.
The bombe detected when a contradiction had occurred and ruled out that setting, moving on to the next. Most of the possible settings would cause contradictions and be discarded, leaving only a few to be investigated in detail. A contradiction would occur when an enciphered letter would be turned back into the same plaintext letter, which was impossible with the Enigma. The first bombe was installed on 18 March 1940.
By late 1941, Turing and his fellow cryptanalysts Gordon Welchman, Hugh Alexander and Stuart Milner-Barry were frustrated. Building on the work of the Poles, they had set up a good working system for decrypting Enigma signals, but their limited staff and bombes meant they could not translate all the signals. In the summer, they had considerable success, and shipping losses had fallen to under 100,000 tons a month; however, they badly needed more resources to keep abreast of German adjustments. They had tried to get more people and fund more bombes through the proper channels, but had failed.
On 28 October they wrote directly to Winston Churchill explaining their difficulties, with Turing as the first named. They emphasised how small their need was compared with the vast expenditure of men and money by the forces and compared with the level of assistance they could offer to the forces. As Andrew Hodges, biographer of Turing, later wrote, “This letter had an electric effect.” Churchill wrote a memo to General Ismay, which read: “ACTION THIS DAY. Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done.” On 18 November, the chief of the secret service reported that every possible measure was being taken. The cryptographers at Bletchley Park did not know of the Prime Minister’s response, but as Milner-Barry recalled, “All that we did notice was that almost from that day the rough ways began miraculously to be made smooth.” More than two hundred bombes were in operation by the end of the war.