Manchester Icons: Father Of Modern Computing And War Hero Alan Turing

The celebrated wartime code-breaker and father of modern computing worked at Manchester University.

He invented the computer – and stops us getting spammed

Turing’s mathematical genius allowed him to foresee the possibility and function of computer like machines before the existence of the necessary technology. Laying out the theory for such devices in an essay in 1936, his revolutionary work provided the foundation for modern computers. He later came up with the ‘Turing test’ to determine whether a machine is intelligent – or not. The principles of it are reversed online today when a computer sets you a CAPTCHA test (like distorted letters) to prove you’re a human and not a rogue bot!

Photo: gaykrant

His machines helped win a war

At the start of World War Two Turing, along with other mathematicians, was recruited to break enemy codes. Working at Bletchley Park, Turing built a machine called a Bombe. It sped-up code-cracking efforts from weeks to hours by trying multiple permutations,whjvh helped the Allies gain an upper hand in the war. Turing’s work saved hundreds of thousands of lives and hastened the defeat of Hitler by months, maybe even years.

He was one of the world’s most important theoretical biologists

And if inventing the computer and helping win the war wasn’t enough, Turing dedicated a significant portion of his life to the study of morphogenesis — the biological process by which organisms take their shape. He developed some of the earliest mathematical models of how biological shapes emerge, long before the molecular structure of DNA was discovered.

His legacy has helped change social attitudes in Britain

You’d think saving countless lives would be enough to secure him national treasure status after the war. But Turing was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and despite his wartime contribution, he was arrested for ‘gross indecency’ in 1952.

He was given a stark choice between prison and chemical castration – a barbaric routine of hormonal drugs designed to reduce libido.

Wanting to avoid prison Turing chose the chemical castration. But the arrest also lost him his security clearance and two years later he died of cyanide poisoning – whether it was suicide or not is still debated.

It took until 2013 for him to be granted a posthumous pardon, following a campaign that was started, fittingly, by e-petition in Manchester. A subsequent legal amendment dubbed Turing’s Law pardoned 65,000 other people convicted of the same ‘crimes’.

He was voted ‘most iconic’ person of the 20th Century by viewers of BBC2’s Icons: The Greatest Person of the 20th Century.

Photo: nationalportraitgallery

Presenter Nick Robinson said of Turing:

“He was a man who worked almost entirely in secret, who received little credit for cracking the Nazi codes and shortening the war and who died having been branded a criminal.

“Today he is the most celebrated figure of the 20th century – a father of computing, war hero and genius.”

Photo: gianncarloduran

Much of Turing’s ground-breaking work was conducted at the University of Manchester

He was appointed Reader in the Mathematics Department at UoM in 1948. Soon afterwards he became Deputy Director of the Computing Laboratory at the University of Manchester and worked on software for one of the earliest true computers – the Manchester Ferranti Mark

A memorial to Turing is situated in Sackville Park, it depicts him sitting on a bench and is situated in a central position in the park. On his left is the University of Manchester and on his right is Canal Street. So make sure you pay him a visit next time you’re passing through!


Also published on Medium.

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