One of the great engineering pioneers of the 20th century, Alan Turing has become almost a mythological figure. His nephew Sir Dermot Turing discusses some of the myth-busting aspects of his new biography.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Alan Turing was a tragi-comic figure. Over the years, a stereotype has emerged of a man who on the one hand epitomises clichéd notions of the nutty professor, while on the other satsifies the murky parable of a misunderstood genius and war hero, so badly treated by his country that he ended up killing himself.
Both images are derived from the truth, but neither tells the whole story, which is why Sir Dermot Turing - Alan Turing’s nephew - has written an account that he hopes will throw light rather than heat on the debate over who his uncle really was.
Son of Alan Turing’s elder brother John, Dermot is motivated by the desire to find out more about the character of the man who “was behind the design of the first British computers”. Wouldn’t it be interesting, he wonders aloud, “to discover that the man who was obviously one of the star codebreakers at Bletchley Park, had by 1950 concluded that computer design was a done deal? You don’t need to work on that any more. What you should be doing is putting these computers to use in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence; the question of the design of animals and plants. How is it that an embryo can change from something that looks like a tennis ball into something that had a head, a tail and four legs?” He continues by quoting his uncle: “a horse is not a spherical, symmetrical object.”
One of the first things the reader will notice on picking up ‘Prof: Alan Turing Decoded’ is that the author has taken a different approach to some of the previous texts that form the canon of Turing scholarship. As a relative of the mathematician, Dermot feels that he is empowered to take a less formal approach in portraying his uncle to the wider, general public than, say, previous monolithic biographies by academics, the most notable of which is by Andrew Hodges, whose ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’ formed the basis of last year’s biopic ‘The Imitation Game’.
Plus and minus
“In being a family member writing a book like this, there is both a plus and a minus to consider,” he says. “Obviously I’ve been steeped in the subject for many years and had access to things like my father’s old files and family photograph albums. To a degree this can provide an insight that perhaps others wouldn’t have.” However, he admits, “there is always the risk that you might not be so objective. But to weigh against that, I am too young to have known him, which has allowed me, I hope, to approach the subject with a reasonable amount of objectivity.”
With that in mind Dermot approached the subject “with an open mind on what I thought I’d had a settled opinion on”. Questions that required a certain amount of editorial distance included such issues as the controversy surrounding his uncle’s death, as well as the perennial issue of the persona that the public has constructed of him as “a geeky loner who didn’t have any friends and so sat in a room inventing theorems. There was a situation where you had the family saying ‘don’t invite this guy to a sherry party because he’s completely impossible’, while his colleagues at Bletchley Park said he was charming and easy to get on with, if sometimes finding it difficult to explain his ideas.”
Dermot recalls an image drawn from an interview with Donald Michie, who worked with Turing at Bletchley and later became professor of machine intelligence at Edinburgh University, which is that of: “Alan Turing going down the pub, playing chess and having a conversation with other Bletchley guys about how you might create an algorithm to program a computer to play chess. But this is in 1944, when computers didn’t exist and programming as a science hadn’t been invented. This isn’t a picture of someone with no friends. So it was very interesting to peel away some of that myth.”
One aspect of the myth that really intrigues the author is why Alan Turing became a British national hero in the first place. “First of all, he had an early and tragic death, which puts him into the same bucket as Nelson and Captain Scott.” Essentially, says Dermot, we like our heroes to have done the decent thing and died before “their feet of clay become too visible. He fits into that mould as well as there being the Shakespearean tragedy of the role of the state in his death. We’ve got a good plotline already. But then we’ve got the idea that he single-handedly and only just in the nick of time, broke the Enigma codes. We need to explode that one.”
The war truth
One thing that is beyond doubt is that Alan Turing was, as Dermot puts it “central to the team at Bletchley Park that was put on the Enigma problem. What I discovered was that the work to design the Bombe was actually done as early as Christmas 1939. We weren’t even in a hot war by then. So essentially the conversations between Alan Turing and Doc Keen about how to turn the ideas into a physical machine has taken place ahead of, and there was a working model in place by, May 1940 when the Germans invaded France. Of course, it didn’t actually work very well at that point because this was before Gordon Welchman’s adaptations had been installed. But that raises another really important question: what did he do for the rest of the war?”
This last question was one of the main intellectual catalysts driving Dermot’s desire to research ‘Prof’. Recent documents that have come to light - including those emerging from GCHQ that are in the process of “making their way to the National Archives” - seem to cast light in this area. “He was checking on our own cypher machinery and he was also part of the Machine Group at Bletchley. Then there was his secret visit to Germany...”
The anecdotes flow as Dermot warms to his theme. ‘Prof’ really is a cracking read and no engineer’s library is complete without it on their shelves.
‘Prof: Alan Turing Decoded’ by Dermot Turing is published by the History Press, £20