Remembering Alan Turing on his 99th birthday

Today marks the 99th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, a noted polymath and cryptanalyst who is regarded by many as being the grandfather of modern computing. We take a look at the life and times of one of the founding fathers of the modern information society.

Born in Maida Vale in London on the 23rd of June 1912, to Julius Mathison Turing and Ethel Sara Stoney, Turing excelled at mathematics and science from an early age. Learning became Turing's passion, to the point where he cycled more the 60 miles from Southhampton to Sherborne School to attend his first day when public transportation was under strike action.

It was at Sherborne that Turing would lose his religion following the death of his friend Christopher Morcom, thought to be Turing's first love interest. Sadly, Turing's sexual orientation would prove to be a fatal issue in later life.

Graduating from King's College, Cambridge with a first-class honours in mathematics in 1934, Turing went on to write the paper On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. It was this paper that would lay the groundwork for the concept of a 'universal machine:' a computer system that, given enough time and memory, can achieve the same results as any other computer system.

At the time, the paper wasn't well received in academic circles. His work, however, was advanced enough to get him noticed by the powers that be and, in World War II, Turing became an integral part of the effort at Bletchley Park to break German ciphers and decode military transmissions.

The work carried out by Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park was of critical importance to the war effort. General Dwight D. Eisenhower stated at the time that intelligence received as a result of the codebreaking activities at the Park, "has been of priceless value. It has saved thousands of British and American lives and, in no small way, contributed to the speed with which the enemy was routed and eventually forced to surrender."

Despite receiving an OBE in 1945 for his work, Turing was forced to keep much of what he had achieved at the Park a secret. Despite this, he was able to work on the Automated Computing Engine - ACE - at the National Physical Laboratory, and submitted a paper containing the first detailed design of a stored-program computer system.

Turing would go on to be appointed Reader in the Mathematics Department of Manchester University, and acted as deputy director of the computing laboratory there. During his time at Manchester, Turing designed programs for the Manchester Mark 1 stored-program computer and proposed the experiment on artificial intelligence that would be named the Turing Test in his honour.

An inherently honest man, Turing reported a break-in at his home in 1952 and admitted to police that he had been engaged in a sexual relationship with one of the suspects, Arnold Murray. At the time, same-sex relationships between men were illegal in England and Turing was promptly arrested on charges of 'gross indecency'.

Found guilty, Turing had his security clearance revoked - preventing him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy work for the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ - and was forced to undergo hormonal castration via oestrogen injections to curb his 'unnatural' urges, under threat of imprisonment.

The strain of being excluded from his beloved work and branded a pervert proved too much for Turing, who was found on the 8th of June 1954 having taken a lethal dose of cyanide to end his own life.

Turing's contributions to the war effort, mathematics, and the very concept of modern computing went largely ignored following his sentencing and subsequent death. In recent years, thankfully, that has started to be rectified: in 2009, Turing received a posthumous apology from Prime Minister Gordon Brown for his treatment at the hands of the government du jour, following a petition raised by John Graham-Cumming.

Turing's work is celebrated at Bletchey Park, which has been transformed into a museum where visitors can learn about the efforts of the Codebreakers and the history of computing. A recent fundraising drive saw the most complete collection of Turing's papers - gathered by his friend Max Newman, who spoke out in defence of Turing at the indecency trial and who famously refused an OBE in protest at his treatment - purchased at auction and soon to be installed in the mansion building as a permanent exhibit.

Turing's story is a tragedy, and one which leaves the world a darker place: given the inestimable impact Turing's work had on the modern world, it's difficult to imagine where we might be had he been allowed to continue.