Alan Turing

On this Day:

May 9, 1941 British intelligence at Bletchley Park breaks the German spy codes after capturing Enigma machines aboard the weather ship Muenchen.

Alan Mathison Turing OBE FRS (23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954) was an English mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist. During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre that produced Ultra intelligence. For a time he led Hut 8, the section that was responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. Here, he devised a number of techniques for speeding the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. Turing played a crucial role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Axis powers in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic.

Turing was highly influential in the development of theoretical computer science, providing a formalisation of the concepts of algorithm and computation with the Turing machine, which can be considered a model of a general-purpose computer. He is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.

Born in Maida Vale, London, Turing was raised in southern England. He graduated at King’s College, Cambridge, with a degree in mathematics. Whilst he was a fellow at Cambridge, he published a proof demonstrating that some purely mathematical yes–no questions can never be answered by computation and defined a Turing machine, and went on to prove the halting problem for Turing machines is undecidable. In 1938, he obtained his PhD from the Department of Mathematics at Princeton University.

After the war, Turing worked at the National Physical Laboratory, where he designed the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), one of the first designs for a stored-program computer. In 1948, Turing joined Max Newman’s Computing Machine Laboratory, at the Victoria University of Manchester, where he helped develop the Manchester computers and became interested in mathematical biology. He wrote a paper on the chemical basis of morphogenesis and predicted oscillating chemical reactions such as the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, first observed in the 1960s. Despite these accomplishments, Turing was never fully recognised in Britain during his lifetime because much of his work was covered by the Official Secrets Act.

Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts. He accepted hormone treatment with DES, a procedure commonly referred to as chemical castration, as an alternative to prison. Turing died on 7 June 1954, 16 days before his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning. An inquest determined his death as a suicide, but it has been noted that the known evidence is also consistent with accidental poisoning.

In 2009, following an Internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way [Turing] was treated”. Queen Elizabeth II granted a posthumous pardon in 2013. The term “Alan Turing law” is now used informally to refer to a 2017 law in the United Kingdom that retroactively pardoned men cautioned or convicted under historical legislation that outlawed homosexual acts.

Turing has an extensive legacy with statues of him and many things named after him, including an annual award for computer science innovations. He appears on the current Bank of England £50 note, which was released on 23 June 2021, to coincide with his birthday. A 2019 BBC series, as voted by the audience, named him the greatest person of the 20th century.


Turing’s parents enrolled him at St Michael’s, a primary school at 20 Charles Road, St Leonards-on-Sea, from the age of six to nine. The headmistress recognised his talent, noting that she has “…had clever boys and hardworking boys, but Alan is a genius.”

Between January 1922 and 1926, Turing was educated at Hazelhurst Preparatory School, an independent school in the village of Frant in Sussex (now East Sussex). In 1926, at the age of 13, he went on to Sherborne School, a boarding independent school in the market town of Sherborne in Dorset, where he boarded at Westcott House. The first day of term coincided with the 1926 General Strike, in Britain, but Turing was so determined to attend, that he rode his bicycle unaccompanied 60 miles (97 km) from Southampton to Sherborne, stopping overnight at an inn.

Turing’s natural inclination towards mathematics and science did not earn him respect from some of the teachers at Sherborne, whose definition of education placed more emphasis on the classics. His headmaster wrote to his parents: “I hope he will not fall between two stools. If he is to stay at public school, he must aim at becoming educated. If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a public school”. Despite this, Turing continued to show remarkable ability in the studies he loved, solving advanced problems in 1927 without having studied even elementary calculus. In 1928, aged 16, Turing encountered Albert Einstein’s work; not only did he grasp it, but it is possible that he managed to deduce Einstein’s questioning of Newton’s laws of motion from a text in which this was never made explicit.


During the Second World War, Turing was a leading participant in the breaking of German ciphers at Bletchley Park. The historian and wartime codebreaker Asa Briggs has said, “You needed exceptional talent, you needed genius at Bletchley and Turing’s was that genius.”

From September 1938, Turing worked part-time with the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), the British codebreaking organisation. He concentrated on cryptanalysis of the Enigma cipher machine used by Nazi Germany, together with Dilly Knox, a senior GC&CS codebreaker. Soon after the July 1939 meeting near Warsaw at which the Polish Cipher Bureau gave the British and French details of the wiring of Enigma machine’s rotors and their method of decrypting Enigma machine’s messages, Turing and Knox developed a broader solution. The Polish method relied on an insecure indicator procedure that the Germans were likely to change, which they in fact did in May 1940. Turing’s approach was more general, using crib-based decryption for which he produced the functional specification of the bombe (an improvement on the Polish Bomba).

On 4 September 1939, the day after the UK declared war on Germany, Turing reported to Bletchley Park, the wartime station of GC&CS. Like all others who came to Bletchley, he was required to sign the Official Secrets Act, in which he agreed not to disclose anything about his work at Bletchley, with severe legal penalties for violating the Act.

Specifying the bombe was the first of five major cryptanalytical advances that Turing made during the war. The others were: deducing the indicator procedure used by the German navy; developing a statistical procedure dubbed Banburismus for making much more efficient use of the bombes; developing a procedure dubbed Turingery for working out the cam settings of the wheels of the Lorenz SZ 40/42 (Tunny) cipher machine and, towards the end of the war, the development of a portable secure voice scrambler at Hanslope Park that was codenamed Delilah.

By using statistical techniques to optimise the trial of different possibilities in the code breaking process, Turing made an innovative contribution to the subject. He wrote two papers discussing mathematical approaches, titled The Applications of Probability to Cryptography and Paper on Statistics of Repetitions, which were of such value to GC&CS and its successor GCHQ that they were not released to the UK National Archives until April 2012, shortly before the centenary of his birth. A GCHQ mathematician, “who identified himself only as Richard,” said at the time that the fact that the contents had been restricted under the Official Secrets Act for some 70 years demonstrated their importance, and their relevance to post-war cryptanalysis:

[He] said the fact that the contents had been restricted “shows what a tremendous importance it has in the foundations of our subject”. … The papers detailed using “mathematical analysis to try and determine which are the more likely settings so that they can be tried as quickly as possible.” … Richard said that GCHQ had now “squeezed the juice” out of the two papers and was “happy for them to be released into the public domain”.

Turing had a reputation for eccentricity at Bletchley Park. He was known to his colleagues as “Prof” and his treatise on Enigma was known as the “Prof’s Book”. According to historian Ronald Lewin, Jack Good, a cryptanalyst who worked with Turing, said of his colleague:

In the first week of June each year he would get a bad attack of hay fever, and he would cycle to the office wearing a service gas mask to keep the pollen off. His bicycle had a fault: the chain would come off at regular intervals. Instead of having it mended he would count the number of times the pedals went round and would get off the bicycle in time to adjust the chain by hand. Another of his eccentricities is that he chained his mug to the radiator pipes to prevent it being stolen.

Peter Hilton recounted his experience working with Turing in Hut 8 in his “Reminiscences of Bletchley Park” from A Century of Mathematics in America:

It is a rare experience to meet an authentic genius. Those of us privileged to inhabit the world of scholarship are familiar with the intellectual stimulation furnished by talented colleagues. We can admire the ideas they share with us and are usually able to understand their source; we may even often believe that we ourselves could have created such concepts and originated such thoughts. However, the experience of sharing the intellectual life of a genius is entirely different; one realizes that one is in the presence of an intelligence, a sensibility of such profundity and originality that one is filled with wonder and excitement. Alan Turing was such a genius, and those, like myself, who had the astonishing and unexpected opportunity, created by the strange exigencies of the Second World War, to be able to count Turing as colleague and friend will never forget that experience, nor can we ever lose its immense benefit to us.

Hilton echoed similar thoughts in the Nova PBS documentary Decoding Nazi Secrets.

While working at Bletchley, Turing, who was a talented long-distance runner, occasionally ran the 40 miles (64 km) to London when he was needed for meetings, and he was capable of world-class marathon standards. Turing tried out for the 1948 British Olympic team, but he was hampered by an injury. His tryout time for the marathon was only 11 minutes slower than British silver medallist Thomas Richards’ Olympic race time of 2 hours 35 minutes. He was Walton Athletic Club’s best runner, a fact discovered when he passed the group while running alone. When asked why he ran so hard in training he replied:

I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard; it’s the only way I can get some release.

Due to the problems of counterfactual history, it is hard to estimate the precise effect Ultra intelligence had on the war. However, official war historian Harry Hinsley estimated that this work shortened the war in Europe by more than two years and saved over 14 million lives.

At the end of the war, a memo was sent to all those who had worked at Bletchley Park, reminding them that the code of silence dictated by the Official Secrets Act did not end with the war but would continue indefinitely. Thus, even though Turing was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1946 by King George VI for his wartime services, his work remained secret for many years.


Within weeks of arriving at Bletchley Park, Turing had specified an electromechanical machine called the bombe, which could break Enigma more effectively than the Polish bomba kryptologiczna, from which its name was derived. The bombe, with an enhancement suggested by mathematician Gordon Welchman, became one of the primary tools, and the major automated one, used to attack Enigma-enciphered messages.

The bombe searched for possible correct settings used for an Enigma message (i.e., rotor order, rotor settings and plugboard settings) using a suitable crib: a fragment of probable plaintext. For each possible setting of the rotors (which had on the order of 1019 states, or 1022 states for the four-rotor U-boat variant), the bombe performed a chain of logical deductions based on the crib, implemented electromechanically.

The bombe detected when a contradiction had occurred and ruled out that setting, moving on to the next. Most of the possible settings would cause contradictions and be discarded, leaving only a few to be investigated in detail. A contradiction would occur when an enciphered letter would be turned back into the same plaintext letter, which was impossible with the Enigma. The first bombe was installed on 18 March 1940.

By late 1941, Turing and his fellow cryptanalysts Gordon Welchman, Hugh Alexander and Stuart Milner-Barry were frustrated. Building on the work of the Poles, they had set up a good working system for decrypting Enigma signals, but their limited staff and bombes meant they could not translate all the signals. In the summer, they had considerable success, and shipping losses had fallen to under 100,000 tons a month; however, they badly needed more resources to keep abreast of German adjustments. They had tried to get more people and fund more bombes through the proper channels, but had failed.

On 28 October they wrote directly to Winston Churchill explaining their difficulties, with Turing as the first named. They emphasised how small their need was compared with the vast expenditure of men and money by the forces and compared with the level of assistance they could offer to the forces. As Andrew Hodges, biographer of Turing, later wrote, “This letter had an electric effect.” Churchill wrote a memo to General Ismay, which read: “ACTION THIS DAY. Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done.” On 18 November, the chief of the secret service reported that every possible measure was being taken. The cryptographers at Bletchley Park did not know of the Prime Minister’s response, but as Milner-Barry recalled, “All that we did notice was that almost from that day the rough ways began miraculously to be made smooth.” More than two hundred bombes were in operation by the end of the war.

Hut 8 and the naval Enigma

Turing decided to tackle the particularly difficult problem of German naval Enigma “because no one else was doing anything about it and I could have it to myself”. In December 1939, Turing solved the essential part of the naval indicator system, which was more complex than the indicator systems used by the other services.

That same night, he also conceived of the idea of Banburismus, a sequential statistical technique (what Abraham Wald later called sequential analysis) to assist in breaking the naval Enigma, “though I was not sure that it would work in practice, and was not, in fact, sure until some days had actually broken.” For this, he invented a measure of weight of evidence that he called the ban. Banburismus could rule out certain sequences of the Enigma rotors, substantially reducing the time needed to test settings on the bombes. Later this sequential process of accumulating sufficient weight of evidence using decibans (one tenth of a ban) was used in Cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher.

Turing travelled to the United States in November 1942[100] and worked with US Navy cryptanalysts on the naval Enigma and bombe construction in Washington; he also visited their Computing Machine Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio.

Turing’s reaction to the American bombe design was far from enthusiastic:

The American Bombe programme was to produce 336 Bombes, one for each wheel order. I used to smile inwardly at the conception of Bombe hut routine implied by this programme, but thought that no particular purpose would be served by pointing out that we would not really use them in that way. Their test (of commutators) can hardly be considered conclusive as they were not testing for the bounce with electronic stop finding devices. Nobody seems to be told about rods or offiziers or banburismus unless they are really going to do something about it.

During this trip, he also assisted at Bell Labs with the development of secure speech devices. He returned to Bletchley Park in March 1943. During his absence, Hugh Alexander had officially assumed the position of head of Hut 8, although Alexander had been de facto head for some time (Turing having little interest in the day-to-day running of the section). Turing became a general consultant for cryptanalysis at Bletchley Park.

Alexander wrote of Turing’s contribution:

There should be no question in anyone’s mind that Turing’s work was the biggest factor in Hut 8’s success. In the early days, he was the only cryptographer who thought the problem worth tackling and not only was he primarily responsible for the main theoretical work within the Hut, but he also shared with Welchman and Keen the chief credit for the invention of the bombe. It is always difficult to say that anyone is ‘absolutely indispensable’, but if anyone was indispensable to Hut 8, it was Turing. The pioneer’s work always tends to be forgotten when experience and routine later make everything seem easy and many of us in Hut 8 felt that the magnitude of Turing’s contribution was never fully realised by the outside world (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

The Turings

Everybody knows Alan Turing who cracked the enigma codes.

But nobody remembers his sister Kay, who provided all his snacks, sandwiches and drinks for the team.

Second, a Song:

Saturday 23 June 2012 marked the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing – mathematical genius, hero of the WWII code breakers of Bletchley Park, and father of modern computing.

Alan Turing was a mathematician, cryptographer and pioneer of computer science who possessed one of the greatest brains of the 20th century. His life was one of secret triumphs shadowed by public tragedy.

Courtesy of, and presented by Dr James Grime, Enigma Project Officer at the University’s Millenium Mathematics Project, here is Cambridge University’s video on “Alan Turing – Celebrating the life of a genius”.  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“Science is a differential equation. Religion is a boundary condition.” – Alan Turing

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Dave & Colleen

© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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