Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy

14/02/2012

Pioneer of modern computing and Enigma codebreaker to be celebrated by new Science Museum exhibition.

100th anniversary of birth of Alan Turing (1912–1954).

A new exhibition celebrating the life of pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing will open on 21 June 2012 at the Science Museum.

Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s life and legacy will examine the achievements of the man whose influence on computer science is still felt today and whose wartime codebreaking helped take years off the length of World War II.

The Science Museum will present the most extensive collection of Turing artefacts assembled under one roof, including machines he devised and devices that influenced him and his colleagues. Together, the collection will offer an indisputable argument for Turing’s enduring global legacy.

At the heart of the exhibition will be

  • the Pilot ACE computer - one of the star items since it embodies Turing’s ideas for a universal programmable computer. It was the fastest computer in the world at the time and is a forerunner of today’s machines.
  • Featured alongside will be a special simulator of the Pilot ACE, made in 1950 to present the computer’s capabilities to the public.
  • Other key exhibits include a piece of Comet jet fuselage wreckage analysed with the aid of Pilot ACE in 1954 following a series of crashes. The work by Pilot ACE eventually helped to reveal the source of the problem, leading to changes in aeroplane design.
  • Other highlights include German military Enigma machines.
  • Few remaining parts of the huge, revolutionary electromechanical ‘bombe’ machines devised by Turing during World War II to crack codes.

During the War, Turing designed the ‘bombes’ to attempt to deal with the proliferation of enemy messages and therefore pinpoint the location of German U-Boat submarines. Eventually, over 200 were built, each weighing a ton and operating constantly at Bletchley Park and other secret sites in the UK. The exhibition also includes a working aid used to break Enigma, which has never been displayed outside of GCHQ.

Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s life and legacy will give a fully-rounded picture of the man known at the secret government intelligence site Bletchley Park as ‘the Prof’. It will explore Turing’s work on artificial intelligence and his morphogenesis work, cut short by his untimely death in 1954 following a conviction for ‘gross indecency’ and an enforced period of medical ‘treatment’ with female hormones.

Science Museum exhibition curator, David Rooney, said “The exhibition is an opportunity to present the remarkable work of a man whose influence reaches into perhaps the most widespread and increasingly popular public pastime of the 21st century, the use of the personal computing device, yet whose name is probably unfamiliar to the vast majority of people.

Turing’s scientific creations and wartime heroics are beyond question but we are able to show a more complete portrait of the man who, far from being the cold, insular lone genius of popular belief, can be seen as a convivial character with many endearing qualities.

Turing, who had undoubted eccentricities and a particular intensity of thought, debated complicated theories with colleagues while running Olympic-standard races and was regarded with affection by colleagues throughout his career. His treatment at the end of his life is a source of national shame.”

Background

Alan Turing’s influence on the history of computing is profound and enduring. At the time when he began his academic career at Cambridge in the 1930s, the term ‘computer’ was often used for a person working to solve scientific and technical problems with a variety of mechanical calculating devices. Before long, Turing had written a paper which set the basis for a machine capable of solving many problems, the foundation of the modern computer.

Following the War, Turing developed a new computer at the government’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL). Completed in 1950, Pilot ACE was not only the physical validation of Turing’s theories, but a powerful computing tool which could be put to a wide variety of uses. It analysed jet aircraft structures following a series of crashes, eventually helping to reveal the source of the problem and leading to changes in aeroplane design; it was used by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin in her examinations of the structure of vitamin B12 and insulin molecules; and it was put into use as one of the earliest computer traffic simulators.

During his time in the relatively sympathetic surroundings at Cambridge and Bletchley, the fact of Turing’s homosexuality was not a significant issue. He later moved to Manchester University to continue his innovative work and, in 1952, he was arrested in Manchester following a relationship with technician Arnold Murray and convicted of gross indecency. Faced with a choice of imprisonment or chemical castration – a course of treatment with female sex hormones – he chose the latter. Throughout and beyond his treatment he continued to work at a highly advanced level, but in 1954 he was found dead in his bed from cyanide poisoning. The coroner's official verdict was suicide, although his death is still the subject of some debate.

In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a formal national apology to Turing, in which he stated “It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different. 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.”

Visitor Information

Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s life and legacy

Exhibition dates: 21 June 2012 – June 2013
Admission: FREE
Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2DD
Open daily 10.00 to 18.00, except 24-26 December
www.sciencemuseum.org.uk / 0870 870 4868

This exhibition was made possible by the support of Google.

Ends

For more media information, please contact Michael Barrett or Kirsten Canning at mb@thepressoffice.uk.com or 020 8295 2424.

Notes to Editors

Science Museum
The Science Museum’s collections form an enduring record of scientific, technological and medical change from the past. Aiming to be the best place in the world for people to enjoy science, the Science Museum makes sense of the science that shapes our lives, sparking curiosity, releasing creativity and changing the future by engaging people of all generations and backgrounds in science, engineering, medicine, technology, design and enterprise.

Google
In April 2011, on the Official Google Blog, Google announced it was "supporting our beloved science museums" with a total of USD12 million in grants that included a grant to the Science Museum London, via the US-based Friends of Science Museums. We are delighted to see this grant being used, in part, to support the exhibition on Alan Turing's life and legacy, an exhibition that should educate and inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists. Our collaboration with the Science Museum goes beyond simply signing the cheque; we are actively supporting the development of this exhibition and the planned Making Modern Communications Gallery, among other activities.