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Alan Turing, the Inventor of Software 371

Roland Piquepaille writes "BusinessWeek celebrates its anniversary with a series of articles about the great thinkers and innovators from the past 75 years. The series stars with a profile of Alan Turing, "Thinking Up Computers." In case you forgot, Turing is the man who created the concept of a "universal machine" which would perform various and diverse actions when given various sets of instructions. In other words, he laid out in the 1920s the foundations of software. You'll find the introduction of Turing's profile, plus more details, photographs and references in this overview."
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Alan Turing, the Inventor of Software

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:07AM (#9115638)
    ...or just a computer-generated one?
  • Turing was also... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by JessLeah ( 625838 ) * on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:08AM (#9115646)
    gay. This is a fact that much of the mainstream media glosses over in noting his accomplishments. (It is possible that there is an anti-gay bias in the history book authors' community... ;) )

    So, any time someone says gays are just a bunch of promiscuous, stupid sinners, ask them if they've ever heard of Alan Turing... :)
    • I doubt most of the media would pass a Turing test.
    • by not_a_product_id ( 604278 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:11AM (#9115676) Journal
      I've read a quite a few things that suggested cold-war surveilance by the british secret service was what drove him to suicide (they were worried that his homosexuality would make him a 'security risk'). IIRC that also led them to remove most of his access to top level work which increased his depression.
      • by NoOneInParticular ( 221808 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:18AM (#9115739)
        It wasn't exactly the removal of access that increased his depression, it probably had more to do with the forceful administration of hormones to cure his 'disease'. Due to these hormones he grew breasts. Not fun. That's the thanks he got for his war efforts and contributions to science.
      • Actually, according to what he wrote in his letters and the memories of his friends, it was not so much the surveillance per se, as the overall inability to get work done or have a satisfying life that left him feeling so hopeless. The hormones did awful things to his body, from reduction in sex drive to growing breasts, the police bullied a street kid into faking the confession that led to Turing's conviction, the funding in England was getting routed around him and his travel was impaired by government restrictions. (This, keep in mind, while the Americans were surging ahead in computer design and would have been delighted to have Turing join them.)

        Oh, it was death by a thousand cuts while the nation that owed so much to him mostly looked on and let him be humiliated and kept from his work.

        Also keep in mind folks, that Turing, while thought of a theoretician, was arguably even more important as an operations guy. He led the effort to confront Churchill with the initial absurdly low levels of funding at Bletchley Park (the British code-breaking center), he played a key role in getting the staffing figured out and codes to the right places, and so on. IIRC, he was not averse to picking up a soldering iron and stepping into the physical work of *building* the computers.

        Of course, this isn't even getting into his late in life interest in things like how to use a computer to replicate patterns in nature like the spots on the side of a cow. Work that was leading him decades ahead of anybody else to the concepts we now know as fractals and chaotic phenomena.

        We'll never know what we've lost, but at least we're getting better at admitting who people like him were.

        But then, when we've still got stuff like A Beautiful Mind not even mentioning that Nash was mostly gay (the real reason he lost his clearance was not for mental illness but because he was found in bed with a young man) we've clearly got a long way to go.

    • by JosKarith ( 757063 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:18AM (#9115729)
      Let's not forget that Turing's life was pretty much destroyed when his homosexuality became public knowledge.
      AFAIK he was robbed by one of his lovers and when he reported it to the police and they found out the relationship between the two they arrested Turing on charges of Lewd and Immoral Acts. This lead to a persecution that destroyed any chance of his working again, and eventually his life.
      Hell of a way to treat a man who saved hundreds, maybe thousands of lives by breaking the Enigma cypher.
      Who knows how much more advanced our understanding of AI's might be if it wasn't for institutionalised homophobia?
    • by jea6 ( 117959 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:18AM (#9115731)
      I don't how it's relevant to discuss Alan Turing's sexuality in the context of his contributions to computer science.

      Maybe you' dlike to see somthing like this:

      BusinessWeek celebrates its anniversary with a series of articles about the great gay and straight thinkers and innovators from the past 75 years. The series stars with a profile of Alan Turing, "Thinking Up Computers." In case you forgot, Turing is the gay man who created the concept of an "universal machine" which would perform various and diverse actions when given various sets of instructions. In other words, he laid out in the 1920s the foundations of software. You'll find the introduction of Turing's profile, plus more details, photographs and references in this overview."

      Alan Turing's being gay was certainly an important part of his life. After all, the persectution he suffered contributed to his death. But to have to label him right off the bat everytime his name is uttered is absurd.

      In any case, had you read past the title and ad, you'd have come across the FIRST PARAGRAPH which reads:

      The rarefied world of early 20th-century mathematics seems light years away from today's PCs and virtual-reality video games. Yet it was a 1936 paper by Cambridge University mathematician Alan M. Turing that laid the foundation for the electronic wonders now crowding into every corner of modern life. In a short and eventful life, Turing also played a vital role in World War II by helping crack Germany's secret codes -- only to be persecuted later for his homosexuality.

      Before whining about gay-bias, RTFA.
      • by wwest4 ( 183559 )
        > I don't how it's relevant to discuss Alan Turing's sexuality in the context of
        > his contributions to computer science.

        It's only relevant because he was a _persecuted_ gay. Now we know that perpetrators of this particular type of discrimination can be enemies of science. There are always a set of poltically correct ways to discriminate (e.g. awards, reputation, curriculum vitae) and politically incorrect ways to discriminate (gender, age, race, etc). Sexual orientation used to be an unquestionably a
        • by 2short ( 466733 )
          Jackie Robinson would not be remotely as important historically if he were not black.

          Turing would be every bit as important historically if he were not gay.

          If you're talking about Turing as a victim of discrimination, obviously his sexual orientation is relevant. But most of the time when people are talking about Turing (this article for example) they are talking about his intelectual accomplishments, and his being gay is irrelevant.

          Sigh. If there is a lesson to take from the example of Turing, it ough
          • by wwest4 ( 183559 )
            > Jackie Robinson would not be remotely as important historically if he were not
            > black.

            I disagree. Jackie Robinson would not be remotely as important historically if he had not changed American baseball. His being black was not his contribution. It is, however, relevant to the story of his contribution.

            > Turing would be every bit as important historically if he were not gay.

            Turing almost certainly would have been MORE important historically had he not been a victim of discrimination. He was you
    • gay. This is a fact that much of the mainstream media glosses over in noting his accomplishments.

      There are actually several mentions of Turing's sexual orientation within the linked article, including the horrendous treatment he received as a result of the increasingly open displays of his homosexuality he exhibited later in his life. It is a disgrace that such a key figure in the eventual overthrow of the Nazi regime (due to his contributions in cracking the Enigma code) could be subjected to such degrad

    • by Enigma_Man ( 756516 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:24AM (#9115780) Homepage
      Why is that important? Do you list whether or not a person is heterosexual in an article or biography about someone? What about the color of their skin or hair.

      I can just imagine all the articles. Joe Schmoe, a straight white man with brown hair, accomplished much in his life blah blah.

      Oh noooo, it's a conspiracy against the gay! Let's all point the prejudice finger.

      • Why is that important? Do you list whether or not a person is heterosexual in an article or biography about someone?

        When a certian feature is common, it is not worth mentioning. When a feature is uncommon, it is worth a mention. It might not be worth a mention in a one sentence summary. It might not be the thing you mention in the first paragraph. But it certianly shouldn't be omitted. It is a very important and significant fact.

        The articles do rightly mention it and don't try to hide it.

      • by eaolson ( 153849 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:52AM (#9116039)
        Why is that important? Do you list whether or not a person is heterosexual in an article or biography about someone? What about the color of their skin or hair.

        Depends. Was he persecuted for being straight? Did he lose his security clearance, get forced to take massive doses of hormones, and be driven to suicide in spite of his contribution to the WWII war effort?

        Any story that would try to talk about Turing but not even mention such details that were so critically important to his life wouldn't be complete.

    • by gclef ( 96311 )
      You know what? I think that's a good thing, for one reason: his sexual orientation really has nothing to do with his mathematical and scientific achievements. Honestly, I don't care that he was gay. He was a great mathematician. That's all that matters.
    • The article clearly points this fact out, as does every other frikkin' article on Alan Turing, to which the answer should probably be: WHO GIVES A CRAP?

      Why waste ink on this almost useless fact (other than it perhaps leading to the circumstances of his death) when there's a lot more worth saying about the guy.

      I just hope that if I ever doing something amazing that after my death we don't get to read:

      "John Graham-Cumming invented the Banana Wumpus Driver. At age 13 he realized that he was attracted to wo
      • by Lars T. ( 470328 ) <Lars.Traeger@goo ... Ncom minus berry> on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:47AM (#9115988) Journal
        "John Graham-Cumming invented the Banana Wumpus Driver. At age 13 he realized that he was attracted to women and spent his entire life in pursuit of sexual encounters with various women until he finally married..."

        And then you stopped? Yeah, right ;-)

      • by Aardpig ( 622459 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:49AM (#9116018)

        Why waste ink on this almost useless fact (other than it perhaps leading to the circumstances of his death) when there's a lot more worth saying about the guy.

        Perhaps because Turing was driven to suicide by an establishment which hounded and bullied him for being gay? By no stretch of the imagination is that a useless fact.

      • by Gannoc ( 210256 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @10:34AM (#9116430)
        The article clearly points this fact out, as does every other frikkin' article on Alan Turing, to which the answer should probably be: WHO GIVES A CRAP?

        Because its a big freaking deal. Its not like he was a mathmatician who happened to also be gay on the side. After helping immensely in WW2, and inventing programming, he was forced to admit he was homosexual.

        He was imprisoned as a security risk, and forced to either spend the rest of his life in jail or take hormone injections. He chose the hormone injections. His career was over, and he wasn't allowed to continue to work on the thing he is now famous for. Its strongly suspected that the forced government injections helped drive him to suicide a few years later.

        FORCED GOVERNMENT INJECTIONS to try to stop him from being gay, and therefore easily susceptible to communists.

        I know many people are jaded by political correctness and media hype, but in this case, it is a BIG GODDAMN ISSUE that this guy was gay.

      • His sexual orientation would be irrelivant, except for the minor little detail that anti-homosexual bigotry is directly responsible for his early death. Turing was insturmental in the British war effort, and had he lived computers might be decades more advanced today. The fact that he was driven to suicide because he was gay makes the fact of his homosexuality important.

        My point here is that simply in and of itself anyones sexuality is pretty irrelivant, but the prejudice surrounding homosexuality direc

    • Most of the idiot homphobes (wait- I'm being redundant) wouldn't know Turing from Barney the Dinosaur.

      Who cares? Aside from the fact that Turing's sexuality is not ignored, it would be a good thing if it was. Let me guess: if it was something that the mainstream media obsessed about, you'd post comments about how homophobia in mainstream media glosses over Turing's accomplishments in favor of irrelevant discussion of his sexual preferences.

      Go read Cryptonomicon [] if you need to obsess about what everybody's sexuality is.

    • by dr_canak ( 593415 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @11:01AM (#9116737)
      I'm sorry, but:

      "Turing was also gay. This is a fact that much of the mainstream media glosses over in noting his accomplishments"

      I didn't know that being gay should be considered an "accomplishment." Certainly important in an autobiographical sense but not an accomplishment. I'm not trolling or flaimbaiting, just pointing out that the tone of the parent may not be as intentioned but it's a tone that suggests an agenda nonetheless.

  • by Phidoux ( 705500 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:08AM (#9115648) Homepage
    So now we know who to blame for the whole mess!
  • True? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Black_Logic ( 79637 ) *
    he died suddenly, almost certainly by suicide from eating a cyanide-laced apple.

    Has anyone else heard the rumur that apple computers logo is a tribute to Turing? Rainbow colored apple with a bite taken out of it and all? I wish I could remember where I heard that.
    • Re:True? (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Not according to Woz:

    • Re:True? (Score:5, Informative)

      by javabandit ( 464204 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:17AM (#9115725)
      Just FYI, this is a much heralded rumor, but isn't true : us .html

      A lot of thought went into the Apple logo and what it signified. The guys over at Apple were very fond of making statements with imagery, design, and color.
    • There have been lots of stories about how Apple corp gots its name. The most common relate to how there was an apple nearby when Woz and Jobs were thinking up the name for their company. I have never heard of the Turing connection before.

      On the topic of Turings death, there was a magazine article that looked into it (American Scientist I think) and raised serious doubts about the suicide theory. They concluded the death was accidental.

    • the apple was originally just flat colored. they made it rainbow at the time because apple was the first to come out with color displays for consumer desktop machines, and wanted to emphasize this using the new logo.
  • by ashot ( 599110 ) <ashot@molsoft . c om> on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:10AM (#9115666) Homepage
    "Turing is the man who created the concept of an "universal machine" which would perform various and diverse actions when given various sets of instructions. In other words, he laid out in the 1920s the foundations of software."

    Actually the turing machine served as the basis of the first hardware, not software. Its really the theoretical basis for the entire computing model.
    I don't mean to be picky, but I have my Automata Theory final in 5 hours and I just spent all night studying for it..
    • I think the point is that he described a machine that could change what it did based on "instructions" that were fed to it. In this case the tape of the Turing machine contains both the data and the program for a specific task.

      The machine itself just interpreted the symbols on the tape, but key to Turing's insight was that although he intially said that a Turing machine might compute a single function, he realized that that single function could be a Turing machine itself (hence the "universal machine") and so the instructions could come from the tape.

      This itself was fundamental because it meant that machines could compute functions of machine and lead to the Halting Problem: i.e. no machine can compute whether another machine will halt.

      If you still have time before your final read sal_Turing_machines :-)

    • by OmniVector ( 569062 ) <egapemoh ym ees> on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:36AM (#9115885) Homepage
      the turing machine wasn't so surprising after learning push-down automata. it was evident that the push-down automata, not being able to represent languages like L = { a^i b^j ^k | i != j != b != k }, was too limited for general computability. The turing machine was just the natural theoretical progression of computablility based on simple algorithm deduction. we can generate anything using a turing machine if we can come up with an algorithm for it.

      the interesting thing about turing machines though is how they are maximal and nothing additional makes the turing machine more powerful (like non-determinism, multiple tapes, two way tapes, etc) because those can all be simulated with a regular turing machine using an algorithm adjustment.
      • by mitchkeller ( 208117 ) <justice AT gogeek DOT org> on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:59AM (#9116090) Homepage

        What you have understand is that Turing didn't know about push down automata (PDA) when he developed the Turing machine (TM). Turing formulated the TM as a way to show that our formal axiomatic system for mathematics was undecidable (that is, there are statements whose truth values cannot be determined algorithmically). When he designed it, the states of the machine were compared to human states of mind. Finite automata (FA) and PDAs are things that logicians and theoretical computer scientists have developed over the years as simpler models of computation. By teaching about them in an automata theory class, students are more prepared for the concepts of the TM. If I just plopped the general definition of a TM down in front of a person, they'd probably run screaming from the room or at least be horribly confused until examples of simpler devices were presented. (Also, FAs and PDAs have the nice property of recognizing regular and context-free languages, respectively, which allows a discussion of formal languages and their recognition to progress in a natural manner.)

        I guess that my point is that the way we are taught mathematics (and that's what the theory of computation is) does not always coincide with the order in which the ideas were developed, no matter how natural the order they are taught in might seem. (For another example, consider that most calculus texts develop differentiation before integration, which is historically backward. The only text that I know of that presents calculus in the historically-correct order is Tom M. Apostol's Calculus. However, in his Mathematical Analysis, he follows the traditional order of differentiation first.)

    • John von Neumann (Score:3, Insightful)

      by zCyl ( 14362 )
      Actually the turing machine served as the basis of the first hardware, not software.

      It's usually John von Neumann who is given credit for inventing the modern concept of the "stored program" in the mid 40's. So if I had to pick a single person to label the inventor of software, I think I would probably choose him. Turing could perhaps be labelled a father of computing.

      But then again, those are all just subjective labels. :) The important thing is to acknowledge which contributions they each made and t
  • by dupper ( 470576 ) * <> on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:11AM (#9115671) Journal
    I think Lawrence Waterhouse and Rudy von Hacklheber deserve some credit, too.
  • Aristoteles (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Tei ( 520358 )
    Well... Turing whas the inventor of turing machines. But Aristoteles provide the logic. So maybe a more accurate title can be "Alan Turing, the Inventor of Turing machine" or maybe "Alan Turing, the ''Inventor'' of Computers". Not true, but better title.
  • by mwood ( 25379 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:15AM (#9115701)
    A hollow voice says, "Jacquard", whose NC looms were old long before Turing came along. Turing put a firm theoretical foundation under what others had been doing for some time.
    • by jsinnema ( 135748 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:25AM (#9115794) Homepage
      Here is a nice clickable overview:

      History of computers []
    • Ada is credited with being the first programmer []
      • Re:As I learned it (Score:3, Informative)

        by Minna Kirai ( 624281 )
        Ada is credited with being the first programmer

        That's a lie. Ada was rich, and to keep her paying for Babbage's project, he had to make her feel like she was accomplishing something. He figured out the Bernoulli program himself, explained it to her, and let her write it out.

        Then in the 20th century, that lie was reinvigorated by educators wanting to supply girls with technical role-models.
    • Jacquard developed looms that could be controlled by using punched cards, but this wasn't really
      "programming" as such. What Turing created was the concept of algorithm execution, which until then nobody had come up with.

      Algorithm execution is where the data and the sequence of instructions for manipulating that data are all part of your input. Jacquard's loom was more along the lines of just the data being in his punched cards, while the sequence of events that occurred was built into the loom, and only de
    • by WegianWarrior ( 649800 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @12:50PM (#9117934) Journal

      While Jacqard certainly has a major place in the history of computers, his looms can not be said to been computers in the sence we use today as they could "solve" only one problem - how to make fabrik.

      No, the true inventor, if such a word can be used, of the true programable, mulitpurpose computer is one of Great Britans great geniuses from the early 1800s - Charles Babbage []. In 1835 he presented a design for a programable, mechanical computer - the Analytical engine []. It was to be powered by steam, and would been 30 meters long (roughtly 100') and 10 meters wide (roughtly 30'). It would use cards simular to those invented by Jacqard for input, while output was via a mecanical printer (rather simular to the printingpresses employed by newspapers), a curveplotter and a bell. Unlike modern, binary machines it would use base 10 in it's calculations.

      Ada Lovelace, as someone else pointed out, was the first programmer for the analytical engine. It would have employed a launguage very simular in most respects to modern assembler, including the possibility to branch and loop.

      More on his analytcal engine can be found here [].

  • by robslimo ( 587196 )
    I'd say his concepts defined the requirements or foundations of how the hardware would operate. Maybe I'm being pedantic as form follows function; software is dictated to a large degree by the base hardware.

  • Turing a genius? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by WilyCoder ( 736280 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:15AM (#9115707)
    I just finished Discrete Structures II. In this class we were to idealize a Turing machine, as a C program. We also went over Alan Turing's paper (the one linked in the article). My professor, who has been involved in cryptographic research for over 20 years, even he went so far as to say that Turing could be labeled a genius. Call me a dork, but I found the automatas to be one of the funnest parts of my CS education.
  • Ada Lovelace (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:18AM (#9115735)
    I always though Ada Lovelace was considered to be the first "programmer"
    • Re:Ada Lovelace (Score:5, Informative)

      by Kainaw ( 676073 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @10:13AM (#9116238) Homepage Journal
      I always though Ada Lovelace was considered to be the first "programmer"

      Ada added notes to Babbage's design of a calculation machine when she translated all his writing. In her notes, she wrote down mathematical steps for getting from point A to point B through the machine - basically describing the states that the machine would be in as it ran. Her writing is very similar to modern programming languages, but also very similar to algebra. While she was probably the first to write a series of algebraic expressions specifically for use on a mechanical calculation machine, she wasn't the first to write the expressions in specific order.

      In the end, she couldn't actually program because Babbage never built his machine. Instead, he started taking Ada to the racetrack. She became addicted to gambling and alchohol and died rather young. That whole part is usually left out of the "Ada was the first programmer" stories.
  • by drgreening ( 594381 ) <> on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:19AM (#9115740) Homepage
    Not only was Turing gay, but his society "rewarded" him for his contributions by arresting and convicting him for a homosexual encounter. He was an honest man, and talked about it in court. And so then, the British government subjected him to chemical castration. His suicide followed that conviction. Please do your bit to stamp out anti-gay bias in your workplace and society. There are a lot of contributing, good people in computer science, and every other field. It's really a shame how most of the world mistreats them.
    • by Enigma_Man ( 756516 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:36AM (#9115882) Homepage
      But that was a long time ago, when that was the accepted practice. I'm not defending it, just explaining that's not how it is today. I think for most educated people nowadays, it doesn't matter what sexual orientation you are. You don't introduce yourself: "Hi, I'm Bob, and I'm straight"... You're just Bob, and that's who you are. "Stamping out anti-anything bias" is the wrong thing to do, just don't be biassed at all. People are people, and nothing more. I hate all the special priveleges special interest groups get nowadays. You have to hire X amount of black and/or gay and/or female people... Why can't I just hire whoever is most qualified for the job hmmm?

      -Jesse, in a ranting mood.
  • Turing is one of the reasons that I'm heading to King's College [] to take my PhD (although the Turing room there is hardly a suitable tribute to his memory).

    The end to his story is extremely tragic (although this must all be taken with a pinch of salt) - apparently, had Turing's involvement in the war effor been known, he would have been saved the indignity of the trials and medical procedures that were foisted upon him. Given that he arguably won the war for us, that doesn't seem unreasonable. Unfortunately
  • Remember Lady Ada (Score:5, Insightful)

    by VernonNemitz ( 581327 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:22AM (#9115759) Journal
    I see that someone else already mentioned Charles Babbage, who designed a mechanical proccessing engine, in addition to mechanical calculating engines. But Lady Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, wrote the first computer program for Babbage's Analytical Engine... (and you folks may recall that there is today a programming language named in her honor).
    • Re:Remember Lady Ada (Score:3, Informative)

      by Jagasian ( 129329 )
      The significance of Turing's "machines" is not about inventing software. It was about re-affirming his PhD Supervisor's thesis of effectively computable. I don't expect non-CS people to understand this, but roughly 100 years ago in the field of metamathematics, there was a question as to the definition of computability. It had to be precise so that you could formally prove things to be computable or uncomputable.

      Originally there were attempts such as primitive recursive functions, but they were shown to
  • not (Score:2, Informative)

    Nice try, but Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage are recognised as the inventors of modern computing and programming. I suggest reading a bit about the architecture of the analytical, difference and related "engines" that he designed: they should remarkable similarity to a von neumann / harvard architecture (i.e. central processing units, memory banks, ALUs, etc).

    Not to undervalue Alan Turing's contribution though, but he was really breaking more substantial ground in the theory of computability; which reall
  • Turing (Score:5, Informative)

    by panurge ( 573432 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:23AM (#9115778)
    Let's not forget that Turing was unusual for his time in that he had practical skills as well as theoretical. He could actually machine the parts for relays and wire up electronics, at a time when mathematicians never got their hands dirty. (His time in the US, I am sure, contributed a lot to this.) His claim to be the father of software is based on his papers which actually discussed the whole organisation of a data processing center as well as the design of software itself, (before such things existed) and his early work with the Manchester computer, which involved advanced work into biological patterns. Since he had also been a lead consultant to the British Government in codebreaking in WW2 - not limited to Enigma by any means, but extending to voice encryption - he covered almost as many bases as John von Neumann.

    It's a bit sickening that already posts on this thread are making gay-bashing remarks about him. The history of how he was discarded by the British Government, believed to be partly at the instigation of the US government, is a sad story of how intolerance helped the British lose their early lead in computing. If he had been born forty years later, he'd probably be running an equivalent of Apple,Oracle, Sun or Microsoft, and no-one would care about what he did in his spare time.

    • "a sad story of how intolerance helped the British lose their early lead in computing"

      The british later did an excellent job of leading the way in computing with the LEO"

      There is no doubt in my mind that, genius as Turing was, Britain had plenty more computing epertise available (BTW, I know Pinkerton was from the US), the failure of British computing was purely commercial in the sense that LEO marketed "The commonwealth".

      Intolerance comes in when you think about US corporation reluctance to purchase

  • The Bombe (Score:5, Informative)

    by dunstan ( 97493 ) < minus berry> on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:25AM (#9115795) Homepage
    Don't forget Turing's Bombes, which ran at Bletchley park deciphering intercepted German signals (see []).
    Of course, the real father of programmable computing was Tommy Flowers [], who seems to have been largely forgotten.

  • Almost right (Score:4, Informative)

    by ZurichPrague ( 629877 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:27AM (#9115810)
    "... he laid out in the 1920s the foundations of software"
    Actually it was the 30's (especially given that he was born in 1913, so even at the end of the 20's he was still a teenager).

    But at that same time in the thirties, the German Conrad Zuse wasn't just 'thinking it up' but doing it. Unfortunately, by being in the wrong country at the wrong time, he still is rarely credited.
    • Revisionist History (Score:3, Interesting)

      by lophophore ( 4087 )
      Read about Konrad Zuse.

      IMHO, he invented the first programming language.

      Details here []

  • by gubachwa ( 716303 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:28AM (#9115815)
    The one thing that the article doesn't comment on is the bizzare form of suicide method. It is one thing to ingest a poison like cyanide, but for it to be "a cyanide laced apple" is not particularly common.

    Turing was an amateur chemist in addition to being a world-class mathematician. His choice of suicide method was intended to lessen the impact it would have on other members of his family, in particular his mother. By eating a cyanide laced apple, it has been speculated that he wanted to make his death look like an accident. His mother would think that he had been performing some chemistry experiment, and then forgot to thoroughly wash his hands before eating the apple. Having one's son die is bad enough, but for it to be a suicide is doubly worse.

    On the more dramatic side, if one were so inclined, it could be said that his method of suicide was rather symbolic. Turing had partook in what was in his day forbidden. For this, he had been "cast out" of his chosen profession and what he loved to do -- in some sense, his Eden. As a final gesture before leaving this world, he ate a piece of forbidden fruit that was symbolic of this fact.

    It's a tragedy that the ignorance and intolerance of first half of the 20th century could have driven such a brilliant man to suicide. If it weren't for Turing, much of what we take for granted today may be a lot different or may not even exist at all. Hopefully the world has wisened over the last 50 years.

    • Well I think that someone as well educated and as well read as Turing would be aware that the Bible makes no mention of an Apple as the "forbidden fruit". IIRC it only refers to "the fruit of he tree of knowledge".

      At a wild guess I would say that the apple idea came along due to Northern Europeen painters who knew mostly apple trees.
    • do you mean to imply that today we are so enlightened that absolutely no homosexual and / or lesbians commit suicide anymore because of their treatment at the hands of the 'others' ?
  • An excellent biography is "Alan Turing, the Enigma" by Andrew Hodges, 1983, updated American edition 2000:

    Derek Jacobi starred in a 1986 play about Alan Turing and also the excellent 1996 television adaptation. Videos can be purchased.

    The site linked by the slashdot article incorrectly identifies a photograph of an Enigma machine. It shows the cryptographic device manufactured by the Germans to encode and decode messages. This is not a device invented by Turing. He had
  • by kid zeus ( 563146 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:37AM (#9115889)
    Among other things he 'invented' the concept of digital recording of data. More interesting, the reason behind it (supposedly) was that he and his true love at school used to talk about death and the soul, and Turing was intrigued with discovering a way to record the information he felt made up the human soul, so that death would lose its sting and they would never have to be parted (mind being more important than body to him).

    Definitely one of the handful of brightest minds of the 20th Century and one of the people most individually responsible for the victory of the Allies after WWII. His subsequent treatment was vile and deplorable, but hey, how is that new in the military? Check out those prisoners... mmm, mmm, mmm... that's some good stuff. Considering the hypocrisy involved in the British Military going after a homosexual for being a security risk, well, I'll just leave off here.

    Turing's work on AI was so revolutionary that the entire field pretty much languished for a couple decades after his death until people finally started to pick up where he left off.

  • Turing's contributions were obviously profound but Lisp fans demand that Alonzo Church's contributions be given similar recognition.

  • Don't forget about his proposal of the "Turing test", which ascribes intelligence to a machine if can successfuly masquerade as human via typewritten conversation.

    More than a practical test, it continues to illustrate the inherent limits on such tests and concepts.

    • by iworm ( 132527 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @10:14AM (#9116248)
      As he defined it the test was actually:
      The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the "imitation game." It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either "X is A and Y is B" or "X is B and Y is A." The interrogator is allowed to put questions to A and B.

      The idea of identifying gender, rather than human or not human, is actually much more subtle than might be at first realised. He of course meant this to be extended as we all nowadays quote the test, but the original idea is subtly elegant... He was tackling the problem from the other direction: forget a computer pretending to be "intelligent", but what do we mean by "thinking" - If a man can "pretend" to be a woman, as per his test, what does that prove? That he is a woman?! Of course not... Thus was does it mean to be a woman, etc etc - Turing was a genius with amazing insight and perception.

      What a loss.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Alan invented Enigma, a machine to decode encrypted messages from the Germans. Uh, No. Turing invented the Bombe, which was used to decode the Enigma transmissions made by the germans. It was the germans who invented the Enigma machine. Given that the Enigma machine when properly setup could encode over 15 million million million combinations, cracking it was no mean feat. If you're in the UK I can recommend a visit to Bletchley Park which these days is a fascinating museum. And if you're knowledge of Eni
  • turing archive (Score:5, Informative)

    by jcupitt65 ( 68879 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @09:48AM (#9116001)
    If you're interested in Turing, you might like the Turing Archive []. This site has scans of a lot of his personal papers and research notes. You can read all his unpublished stuff too :)
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Not to take anything from Turing but wasn't she recognized as the first programmer by coding a virtual program for a virtual (now working) computer conceived by Charles Babbage in 1843?

    "When inspired Ada could be very focused and a mathematical taskmaster. Ada suggested to Babbage writing a plan for how the engine might calculate Bernoulli numbers. This plan, is now regarded as the first "computer program.""
  • Still open (Score:2, Interesting)

    by 12357bd ( 686909 )

    Turing left a bunch of still new ideas unexplored. Just look at his 48's paper Intelligent Machinery> [].

    Recurrent connectionism was the starting point, and P machines have not even been explored.

    What's in a sig?

  • by Gannoc ( 210256 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @10:27AM (#9116377)
    If he had been black/female/whatever, and accomplished what he did, and in the end was imprisoned and eventually driven to suicide as a direct result of his ethnicity, he would be constantly brought up as a grim example of racism.

    Children in school would learn about how the man who cracked Enigma and might have literally saved WW2 was eventually driven to commit suicide....

    While no gay person I know has even heard of Turing. I never heard about him until college.

    I think its another case of people not giving a damn about geeks...

  • by LesDawson ( 751477 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @12:04PM (#9117341)
    I like how the poster complains that it wasn't explicitly made clear he was gay - as if that was relevant at all. This reminds me of an Onion spoof :

    Alan Mathison Turing was one of the great, gay pioneers of the computer field.
    He inspired the now common terms of "The Turing Machine" and "Turing's Test.", and preferred the company of men to women. As a mathematician he applied the concept of the algorithm to digital computers, and liked to kiss and hold other men.
    The homosexual's research into the relationships between machines and nature created the field of artificial intelligence. His intelligence and foresight made him one of the first to step into the information age. His sexual preference was for men.
  • by itsNothing ( 761293 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @12:06PM (#9117366)
    It's interesting to examine the lives of the 3 pioneers of theorical computing: Kurt Godel, Emil Post and Alan Turing.

    Turing developed a model for computers (the Turing machine). He developed the proof of the Halting problem. That is, given a program and a input to that program, you cannot generally determine if the program will terminate execution.

    As you're probably already aware, Turing was arrested and imprisoned for homosexuality. After he was released, he undertook a multi-month project to extract cyanide from the pits of apples. After he had sufficient quantities, he drank it and died (aged early 40s).

    Kurt Godel was responsible for developing the mathematical proof of undecidability. Given a system with the capabilities of "simple" arithmetic, he showed that there are propositions (i.e. statements) you can make within the system which can be neither proven nor disproven. This is equivalent to Turing's "halting problem".

    Godel was paranoid, and believed that people were trying to poison him. He only ate what his wife cooked. When she died, he stopped eating and starved himself to death.

    Emil Post was an American mathematician (Columbia Ph.D., i think) who developed a proof of undecidability many years before Godel. In addition, he developed a model for computation which is similar to Turing's machine (it uses a pre-loaded queue to both hold the input string, and to hold the results of intermediate computations). He developed a proof of undeciability based upon his machine model (the "Post Correspondence Problem").

    Post was a manic-depressive for most of his life. He lost an arm in an accident as a child. He had a hard time holding jobs after receiving his Ph.D. due to his depression. In the 50's he was treated for depression using Electro-Shock therapy (for interested readers... for a real shock go look up the 1948 or 1949 Nobel prize for Medicine :-). After one of his "treatments", he suffered a heart attack and died.

    So, in conclusion, it's rather interesting to reflect upon the fact that the foundations of computer science comes from three individuals who suffered clear psychological problems. (And they wonder why nerds work in the dark :-)

  • online Enigma (Score:3, Interesting)

    by scubacuda ( 411898 ) <> on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @12:55PM (#9117998)
    Check out this online Enigma machine [].

    Play with that a while, and you'll see why that was such a bitch to crack.

  • by sugarmotor ( 621907 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @02:22PM (#9119010) Homepage
    Whenever the name Turing comes up, I think he would turn in his grave if he saw what kind of software is being produced today - buffer overflows ... rampant waste of memory and processor time ... Y2K stuff etc.

    He would have been delighted with a 1GHz / 1GB RAM machine and now it is just taken for granted.

  • by 1iar_parad0x ( 676662 ) on Tuesday May 11, 2004 @11:45PM (#9123838)
    Although I see no problem paying respect to an underappreciated mathematician, I'm always a little weary of how we seem to forget the contributions of others. For instance, Martin Davis in his book "Computability and Unsolvability" refers to Turing machines as a Turing-Post machine (perhaps a nod to his former undergraduate advisor). Also, Kleene invented the notion of a "primitive recursive functions". This was shown by Alonzo Church to be equally as powerful as Turing's Universal Computer. In other words, there were alot of guys involved in developing the foundations of computer science. How often do you hear of Emil Post, Stephen Kleene, and Alonzo Church? Heck, it was quite 'en vogue' to create fundemental models of computation|mathematics. I've seen models bearing the names of Markov, Godel, etc. "Computability: An Introduction to Recursive Function Theory" by Nigel Cutland has a chapter devoted to the subject.

The road to ruin is always in good repair, and the travellers pay the expense of it. -- Josh Billings