London’s Science Museum is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, Enigma codebreaker and father of modern computing.
The exhibit, Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s life and legacy, looks at the work of Alan Mathison Turing (1912-1954) and his enduring influence on the development of computers and theory in the 21st century. Codebreaker features the most comprehensive collection of items related to the scientist and his achievements, including machines he designed, as well as machines and devices that influenced his work.
The project is curated by David Rooney and the Science Museum has expressed their gratitude to Google for their support of this project.
Turing Exhibit: Curator David Rooney’s Comments
In a recent press release, 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.″
Decoded Science had the opportunity to interview David Rooney further, and asked him to discuss the challenges of this type of exhibition:
“It is always a challenge to curate an exhibition about the life of a theoretician like Alan Turing, since many of his ideas were very abstract. But he was also a practical man with interests across a wide range of fields in science and technology, which meant we could look across a broad range of Science Museum artefacts to find exhibits to illuminate his work.
Two favoured examples came when we wanted to understand the real-world impact of his pioneering ‘Pilot ACE’ computer, which forms the centrepiece of the show. Alongside it we display a large fragment of fuselage wreckage from BOAC Flight 781 which crashed in 1954, as well as an exquisitely detailed molecular model of vitamin B12 made for the Science Museum by the celebrated scientist Dorothy Hodgkin. Both Hodgkin’s work and the aircraft crash investigation employed Turing’s computer in high-speed data analysis crucial to the success of the projects.”
David Rooney also tells us that, “Looking beyond Alan Turing’s many scientific and technological achievements, from wartime codebreaking to computing, thinking machines to morphogenesis, it was important to us that we presented a rounded, biographical portrait of Turing in order also to understand his motivations and frustrations, hopes and fears, as well as his world-changing scientific work. On show in the exhibit is a set of letters written by Alan Turing to the mother of his childhood friend, Chris Morcom. These have never been seen in public before. As a teenager at school, Turing loved Morcom, although it was unrequited. Tragedy came in 1930, when Morcom died from tuberculosis, aged just 18. Turing was 17, and in his grief he sketched out for Mrs Morcom ideas about the spirit living on after death — ideas that later became realised in his pioneering work in machine intelligence published in 1950.”
Codebreaker features artifacts selected from the Science Museum’s own comprehensive collection, as well as items loaned by external bodies, including GCHQ (successor to Bletchley Park); the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford; the University of Manchester; the National Physical Laboratory; the family of Christopher Morcom; and Sir Michael Jagger. The display features a number of relevant items such as a Hollerith punch-card sorting machine, a Cybernetic tortoise invented by William Grey Walter, and information about the Universal Turing Machine.
The exhibition is arranged in six sections:
- Computing Before Computers
- Alan Turing’s War
- ACE – the Automatic Computing Engine
- Can Machines Think?
- A Matter of Life and Death
- Programming Computers Today
Highlights of the Exhibition
Decoded Science visited London’s Science Museum, and found a wide variety of interesting exhibits on display, including those described here.
Turing’s Bombe: On 4th September 1939, one day after the outbreak of World War II, Turing reported to Bletchley Park, the wartime headquarters of the Government Code and Cypher School. (GCCS). Known to his co-workers as ‘the Prof,’ he developed his pioneering electromechanical ‘bombe’ – it was used to break enemy codes, and locate German U-Boat submarines. More than 200 ‘bombes’ were constructed and used at Bletchley Park and other secret locations around the UK. Turing’s ground-breaking work may have helped shorten World War II by up to two years.
- Enigma – Codebreaking Machines: During the Second World War the British government was desperate to understand German encoded messages. These messages provided information about attacks on British and Allied supply ships. In addition to the ‘bombes’ mentioned above, Turing developed sophisticated decryption processes to break the codes.
- The Pilot ACE – Automatic Computing Engine: From 1945 to 1947, Turing was based at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), where he was involved in the design of the Pilot ACE computer (Automatic Computing Engine). The Pilot ACE helped investigate a series of plane crashes, and led to major changes in aircraft design.
In its day, the Pilot ACE was the world’s fastest computer, and the forerunner of modern computers. Unfortunately, the secrecy surrounding activities at Bletchley Park meant there were delays in getting the project off the ground. Turing, discouraged and disillusioned, returned to Cambridge in 1947 for a one year sabbatical. During Turing’s one-year absence the Pilot ACE, an early version of the full ACE, was constructed, running its first programme on 10th May 1950. Although Turing’s complete version was never built, his ideas continue to influence computer design.
- The Pilot ACE Simulator: Featured alongside the ACE computer is a special simulator of the Pilot ACE produced in 1950 to show the public what the computer could do. The Pilot ACE was used as one of the first computer traffic simulators. It was also used by Dorothy Hodgkin, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, during her investigations into the structure of vitamin B12 and insulin molecules, aspreviously mentioned by David Rooney.
Visit The Codebreaker Exhibits
Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s life and legacy will be on show at London’s Science Museum from 21st June 2012 until the end of June 2013. Admission is free, and further details are available from the Science Museum.
Science Museum: Special Exhibitions. Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s life and legacy. (2012). Accessed June 24, 2012.
Google European Public Policy Blog. Commemorating Alan Turing at London’s Museum of Science. (2012). Accessed June 24, 2012.
gemma. The Spirit of Alan Turing. (2012). Science Museum. Accessed June 24, 2012.© Copyright 2012 Frances Spiegel, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science