“We can see only a short distance ahead but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”
The corporate logo of Apple computers is a rainbow-striped apple with a single bite missing from it. For most people it is no more than the bright emblem of a successful modern company. For others with longer memories it is a poignant tribute to a remarkable man who lived for a short period of his life in Hampton.
Alan Turing was the second son of Julius Mathison Turing and his wife Sara. He was born at 2 Warrington Crescent in Maida Vale on 23 June 1912. Because his father worked as a civil servant in India, Alan and his older brother John were brought up by family friends and relatives in England.
He was educated at Sherborne School in Dorset and in October 1931 went up to King’s College, to read Mathematics. He showed a prodigious talent and in March 1935, at the age of 22, he was elected a Fellow of King’s. The same year he invented an abstract computing machine – now known as the Turing Machine – which stored information as binary symbols on an infinite paper tape. It was the template for all subsequent stored-programme digital computers and provided the basis for the modern theory of computing.
After a short period at Princeton University in America in 1938 Turing returned to Britain and on the outbreak of war joined the top-secret Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park. Here he played a vital role in deciphering the radio messages encrypted by the German ‘Enigma’ code machine. To do this he helped design decrypting machines called ‘bombes’. These provided vital intelligence for the Allies. By early 1942 Bletchley Park was ‘cracking’ about 39,000 intercepted messages each month, rising subsequently to over 84,000 messages a month – approximately two every minute. Turing’s breaking of the German naval codes helped defeat the U-Boat menace in the North Atlantic. His work on the binary ‘Fish’ ciphers allowed the Allies access to high-level signals from Hitler and the German High Command. A colleague said that Turing’s time at Bletchley was…
<a href=“/assets/images/2009/turing_bombe.png” title="See larger version of – A Turing “Bombe” decryption machine used at Bletchley"><img src=“/assets/images/2009/turing_bombe_thumb.png” width=“150” height=“129” alt="A Turing “Bombe” decryption machine used at Bletchley" class=“photo right” />
.. perhaps the happiest of his life, with full scope for his inventiveness, a mild routine to shape the day, and a congenial set of fellow-workers.
It is estimated that the work of the Government Code and Cipher School shortened the war in Europe by at least two years and placed Britain at the very forefront in the development of computers. For his part in this remarkable achievement Turing was awarded the Order of the British Empire.
Between 1945 and 1947 Turing worked at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington on a machine that would electronically process information. The Lab was very excited by this and put out a press release heralding the development of an ‘electric brain’ that would be ‘a major national project and an outstanding example of British innovation’. Unfortunately Turing’s design called for at least 6k bytes of storage – and this was considered far too ambitious by the management at Teddington. Nothing was actually built. When Turing eventually resigned in 1948 virtually all his ideas, including the beginnings of a programming language, were lost.
During this time Turing lived at Ivy House on Hampton High Street and became a keen member of Walton Athletic Club. Mr Harding, a club member recalled the moment he was invited to join…
“He was… spotted running by himself. We heard him rather than saw him. He made a terrible grunting noise when he was running, but before we could say anything to him, he was past us like a shot out of a gun. A couple of nights later we caught up with him long enough for me to ask who he ran for. When he said nobody, we invited him to join Walton. He did, and immediately became our best runner.”
In August 1947 he took part in the Amateur Athletic Association championships at Loughborough in Leicestershire competing in the Marathon – all 26 miles 385 yards of it. He came 5th with a time of 2 hours, 46 minutes, 3 seconds, only 11 minutes slower than the winner in the 1948 Olympic Marathon. In a 1948 cross-country race he finished ahead of Tom Richards who was to win the silver medal in the Olympics. When asked why he pushed himself so hard in training he replied, “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard.”
In 1949 he went to Manchester University where he directed the computing laboratory and started work on the development of artificial intelligence. In 1951 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1952, an acquaintance, Arnold Murray, helped an accomplice to break into Turing’s house. Following a police investigation Turing acknowledged a sexual relationship with 19 year old Murray and was charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. Although this was a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain and homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness Turing was unrepentant and was convicted. In order to avoid going to jail, he accepted “chemical castration” – the injection of the oestrogen hormone to neutralise his libido. The conviction also led to a removal of his security clearance, meaning he could no longer work for GCHQ, the post-war successor to Bletchley Park.
On the morning of 8 June 1954, Alan Turing was found dead at his home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, a half eaten apple beside his bed, apparently laced with cyanide. Because there was no suicide note there has been endless speculation about his death. Most believe that his death was suicide – a bizarre re-enactment of ‘Snow White’, his favourite fairy tale. His mother, Sara, strenuously argued that the poisoning was accidental due to careless storage of laboratory chemicals. Darker elements have suggested that because his homosexuality was seen as a serious security risk he was assassinated. Alan Turing was cremated at Woking crematorium on 12 June 1954.
There has also been endless speculation about Apple Computers and their multi coloured ‘apple logo’ with a bite missing. Is it a poignant homage to Alan Turing and his apple, the colours representing the ‘Gay Pride’ rainbow flag?
Apple say that their logo, designed by Rob Janoff in 1976, is a reference to Sir Isaac Newton and ‘the acquisition of knowledge’. The first draft of the apple logo had no bite taken from it. Steve Jobs of Apple thought that it looked too much like an orange so ‘a bite’ was removed. Apple say that the rainbow colours were added to emphasise the Apple ][‘s superior colour output. Computer nerds will notice that the rainbow colours are in reverse order to indicate ’hope and anarchy’!
It is difficult to know where Britain would stand in the world of computers if Alan Turing had lived, if his colleagues at Teddington had been more supportive of his work, if the British establishment had not been so intolerant of his homosexuality. Some say that the mathematical world did not catch up with Turing’s ideas until the mid 1970’s. If he had lived maybe Silicon Valley would now be in Crown Road and Microsoft based just off the A316.
“Machines take me by surprise with great frequency!”
— from Martyn Day