Article published on December 9, 2014.
I first encountered Alan Turing when, as a Waterstone’s bookseller back in the 1980s, I noticed how often we were selling copies of a book by Andrew Hodges entitled Alan Turing: The Enigma of Intelligence. I’d no idea who Alan Turing was and the book itself was an unprepossessing edition but it kept on selling and selling; not in huge quantities but in a steady stream. We’d no EPOS in those days but you didn’t need a computer to tell you that here was a book destined for backlist immortality. Why, I wondered? And who was Alan Turing?
Sixty years after his death, many people know who Alan Turing was. Barack Obama, speaking to the parliament of the United Kingdom, singled out Newton, Darwin and Alan Turing as British contributors to science and his remarks signalled that public recognition of Alan Turing had attained a level very much higher than in 1983, when Hodges’ book first appeared. But for the British, who love to sanctify their heroes, Turing has been conspicuously under-celebrated.
He was of course the mathematician whose cipher-cracking transformed the Second World War. Taken on by British Intelligence in 1938, as a shy young Cambridge don, he combined brilliant logic with a flair for engineering. In 1940 his machines were breaking the Enigma-enciphered messages of Nazi Germany’s air force. He then headed the penetration of the super-secure U-boat communications.
But his vision went far beyond this achievement. Before the war he had invented the concept of the universal machine, and in 1945 he turned this into the first design for a digital computer. Turing’s far-sighted plans for the digital era forged ahead into a vision for Artificial Intelligence. However, in 1952 his homosexuality rendered him a criminal and he was subjected to humiliating treatment. In 1954, aged 41, Alan Turing took his own life.
Read an extract from Alan Turing: The Enigma:
If Andrew Hodges’s book went some way to increasing popular awareness of one of the world’s greatest innovators, a new film, The Imitation Game, featuring an all-star cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, and Matthew Goode may complete the task (although it’s only fair to warn filmgoers that the movie-makers have played fast and loose with the facts and brought down on their heads a good deal of negative comment.) As always, read the book first and then decide if the movie has done Alan Turing justice.
Watch a trailer from The Imitation Game