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Alan Turing

Alan Turing was born in London on 23 June 1912. Educated at Sherborne School in Dorset and at King's College, Cambridge, he graduated in 1934 with a degree in Mathematics. Twenty years later, after a short but brilliant career, he died.

At the turn of the millennium, 45 years after his death, Time magazine listed him among the twentieth century's 100 greatest minds, alongside the Wright brothers, Albert Einstein, DNA busters Crick and Watson, and the discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming. Turing's achievements during his short lifetime were legion. Best known as the genius who broke Germany's most secret codes during the war of 1939-45, Turing was also father of the modern computer. Today, all who click to open are familiar with the impact of his ideas. To him we owe the brilliant innovation of storing applications, and the other programs necessary for computers to do our bidding, inside the computer's memory, ready to be opened when we wish. At a time when the term 'computer' meant nothing more than a human clerk who sat at a desk doing calculations with paper and pencil, Turing envisaged a 'universal computing machine', whose function could effortlessly be transformed from word processor to desk calculator to chess opponent—or anything else that we have the skill to pin down in the form of a program. Like many great ideas, this one now seems as obvious as the wheel and the arch, but with this single invention, the stored program universal computer, Turing changed the world.

In 1945 Turing went on to design a vast stored-program electronic computer called the Automatic Computing Engine—or ACE. The name was an homage to 19th century computing pioneer Charles Babbage, who proposed giant mechanical calculating 'engines'. Turing's sophisticated ACE design found commercial success in the English Electric Company's DEUCE, one of the earliest electronic computers to go on sale. The DEUCE became a foundation stone of the fledgling British computer industry, and, together with a small handful of other mark 1 computers—all in one way or another profoundly influenced by Turing's ideas—the DEUCE propelled the nation into the Computer Age. Turing also contributed to the triumph at Manchester, where Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams built the first computer with memory stored programs, which can be considered as a universal Turing machine realised in electronic hardware. Their 'Baby', the world's first modern computer, came to life in June 1948, the same year that Turing joined the Computing Machine Laboratory at Manchester. He remained at The University of Manchester for the rest of his life.

In addition to his remarkable theoretical and practical contributions to the development of the computer, as well as to the new science of computer programming, Turing was also the first pioneer of the areas of computing now known as Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life. He also made profound contributions to mathematics and mathematical logic, philosophy, theoretical biology, and the study of the mind.


(contributed by Jack Copeland).