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Alan Turing: The computing pioneer's life and works, in photos

The Science Museum in London is celebrating the centenary of computing pioneer Alan Turing, whose work helped shorten World War II, laid the groundwork for modern computers, and set the standard test for artificial intelligence
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Mick Jagger's Enigma machine

If mathematician Alan Turing were still alive today, he would have reached his 100th birthday on 23 June. To celebrate the centenary, the Science Museum in London is staging an exhibition on the work of the British computing pioneer, whose ideas helped drive code-breaking and computer programming, but stretched into many other areas.

Turing was only 24 years old when he came up with the idea of the 'stored program' computer, which underpins every computer today. He influenced early thinking on artificial intelligence, came up with mathematical approaches to problems in biology and medicine, and played a part in designing and programming the early computers built in the post-war era.

In September 1939, Cambridge graduate Turing was recruited to work on World War II code breaking at Bletchley Park, in part to try to crack the Enigma codes used by the German High Command. He helped develop the electromechanical Bombe machine, which acted as if it were several Enigma machines wired together, for the decoding. His work is thought to have helped shorten the war by two years.

The Enigma machine pictured was lent to the museum by Mick Jagger, who produced the 2001 British movie Enigma, a wartime thriller set at Bletchley Park.


Alan Turing: 10 ideas beyond Enigma.

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The Pilot ACE built from Turing's designs

After the war, Turing worked on developing a computer at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. He left the project in 1948, but a trial version of the Pilot ACE computer (pictured) was completed in 1950 from Turing's fundamental designs.

Described by the Science Museum as "the most significant surviving Turing artefact", the Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) was one of the first electronic universal computers.


Alan Turing: 10 ideas beyond Enigma.

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3 of 6 Science Museum/SSPL

Fuselage from the wreckage of a Comet aircraft

The Pilot ACE computer was used to investigate a series of fatal air crashes involving Comet aircraft in the 1950s. The cause of the crashes was subsequently found to be metal fatigue.

This piece of fuselage (pictured) is from a Comet that crashed in 1954 into the Mediterranean near Italy, killing 35.


Alan Turing: 10 ideas beyond Enigma.

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4 of 6 Science Museum/SSPL

Model of vitamin B12

Chemist Dorothy Hodgkin used the Pilot ACE computer in research into the structure of vitamins, using it to help devise this model of vitamin B12 (pictured), presented to the Science Museum in 1959.


Alan Turing: 10 ideas beyond Enigma.

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5 of 6 Science Museum/SSPL

The Logic Machine devised by Turing protégé Dietrich Prinz

Turing went to work at Manchester University in 1948, after leaving the National Physics Laboratory. In 1949, his protégé Dietrich Prinz worked with philosophy lecturer Wolfe Mays to devise the electrical relay-operated symbolic logic machine pictured above. Built from RAF spare-parts, the machine is a device for testing logical propositions.

Turing was fascinated by thinking machines, and in 1950 wrote a paper published in Mindthat contained what would become known as the 'Turing Test', a way to measure machine intelligence.


Alan Turing: 10 ideas beyond Enigma.

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6 of 6 Science Museum/SSPL

A cybernetic 'tortoise' devised by William Grey Walter

In August 1951, Turing visited the Science Museum and saw a cybernetic 'tortoise' invented by neurologist William Grey Walter. The 'tortoise' could travel around floors and avoid obstacles, and was attracted to light.

At the time, Grey Walter's neurological institute was also involved in trialling the use of female hormones to reduce libido in homosexual men. Turing, who knew Grey Walter through the cybernetics Ratio Club, was himself was given the choice of prison or chemical castration in 1952 after being found guilty of gross indecency. Turing opted for the course of 'treatment', but was found dead of poisoning in 1954 next to a half-eaten apple.

Then-UK prime minister Gordon Brown apologised for Turing's treatment in 2009, calling it "horrifying".

"It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different," said Brown. "He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.

"While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him."

'Codebreaker — Alan Turing's life and legacy' runs at the Science Museum from 21 June to 31 July, 2012.


Alan Turing: 10 ideas beyond Enigma.

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