The life and works of Alan Turing

While other mathematicians and scientists like Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Liebniz, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace may have experimented with simple computing machines, it is Alan Turing who is generally regarded as the father of modern computing.

Alan Turing’s work on the nature of thought and the potential for artificial intelligence (AI) went a long way towards answering the question: Will it ever be possible to create a machine that is conscious and can think?

Determined student

Born in London in 1912, Turing showed promise at an early age. He was educated at Sherborne School in Dorset, a prestigious boarding school. The day he was due to start coincided with the General Strike of 1926, and for this reason there were no trains or buses – no public transport available at all. Although Turing was only 14, he was so determined to get to school that he cycled 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Southampton to Sherborne, staying overnight at a roadside hotel. 

Later he went to Cambridge University, where, in 1935 and at the age of just 22, he was elected Fellow of King’s College. 


Did you know that Alan Turing was also a talented long-distance runner?


At the outbreak of World War II, Turing joined Britain’s code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park, in Buckinghamshire. There he worked mainly with the section for breaking the German naval codes used by enemy warships and submarines. A German engineer named Arthur Schebius had invented something called The Enigma Machine at the end of World War I, to protect secret communications. 

Turing and his team in Hut 8 devoted themselves to cracking Enigma codes. Their work involved the development of an electromechanical machine called The Bombe, which was made up of wires, circuits and dials. Experts have estimated that the work undertaken here by Turing and his colleagues may have shortened the war in Europe by as much as four years, no doubt saving countless lives.

In 1946, Turing was awarded an OBE for his wartime service. He was also made a fellow of the Royal Society. 

Between 1945 and 1947 Turing completed the first design of a stored-program computer, and he later moved to the University of Manchester, where he worked on software for one of the earliest true computers – the Manchester Mark 1.

The Bombe at Bletchley Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The imitation game

In October 1950, the magazine Mind published one of Alan Turing’s most famous articles. Entitled ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’, it began: ‘I propose to consider the question: Can machines think?’ Turing went on to propose a test for answering this question.

In the Turing Test, Person (A) is stationed at a computer terminal, which is linked with two other computer terminals. Person (A) sends questions to both the other computer terminals. One of the other computers is controlled by person (B), who sits at the keyboard and answers the questions he/she is sent. The other computer answers the questions sent to it with no human interference. Person (A) is then asked to decide which of the two responding terminals was controlled by a human, and which was a computer acting alone.

In the same article, Turing went on to say: ’I believe that in about 50 years’ time it will be possible to program computers so well that an average interrogator will have no more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identifications after five minutes of questioning.’ In practice we’re not quite there yet, but we’re moving towards it at a rapid pace.

Tricky Question:

In what ways do you think humankind will benefit from developing artificial intelligence that can pass Turing’s Test?

Turing Test Diagram. Juan Alberto Sánchez Margallo, CC BY 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons

Binary code

Modern computers use binary code to send information. Binary is a counting system that uses just two numerals: 0 and 1, instead of the ten we are used to in the decimal system.

When a current is flowing through a circuit, that is 1, and when the current is not flowing through the circuit, that is 0.  Another way of explaining it is that 1 = ON and 0 = OFF.

The decimal system uses base ten – every time a number moves one position to the left in a figure, it increases by a power of 10 (e.g. 1, 10, 100, 1000 etc). Binary uses base two; each move to the left increases the value by a power of 2 (e.g. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 etc). Remembering that 1 = ON and 0 = OFF, the coding works by figuring out which of the binary numbers would be fired (or switched on) in order to make up other numbers.

Because binary works on doubling, it means that just 6 BITS can have 64 possible positions. The more BITS used in a sequence, the more possible combinations of patterns there are.

These binary streams are encoded in different data formats to give them meaning. For example, the 8-bit pattern 01000001 could be the number 65, the letter A (capital NOT lowercase!) or a certain colour in an image. Because only the digits 1 and 0 are used, the recall of numbers is extremely rapid and vast amounts of numbers can be stored in the computer’s memory.

If you enjoyed this interesting blog, then you will love the articles in our Megamaths issue. This article appeared in the Codes and Coding issue, which you can access via our digital subscription!

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Words: Frances Durkin. Illustration: Yann Bastard