alan turing plaque

Alan Turing named as ‘ultimate icon’ of 20th century by BBC viewers

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Alan Turing has been named by viewers of BBC Two as the “greatest” 20th-century person, following a public vote which saw the codebreaker fight off stars such as David Bowie and Nelson Mandela.

In addition to the winner, Turing, other finalists up for voting included Ernest Shackleton, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and Pablo Picasso.

The result was revealed live from Indigo at the O2 by finale hosts Claudia Winkleman and Nick Robinson.

Accepting the award, Inagh Payne, Turing’s niece, said: “On behalf of the Turing family I’d like to thank you so much for voting for my uncle, it’s such an honour. I’ve got such fond memories of my uncle, when he used to come and visit my family and all the things we used to do together. Thank you so much again, it’s wonderful.”

Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence and came up with the Turing machine, which many people consider to be one of the first models of a general-purpose computer.

His expertise in cryptography also led him to work at Bletchley Park, the Government’s codebreaking centre during the Second World War. Here he devised a number of techniques for speeding up the breaking of German ciphers, which yielded essential tactical information about the German forces for the Allies.

Each figure included in the BBC Two programme represented a category: leaders, explorers, scientists, entertainers, activists, sports and artists or writers, with each person the subject of a documentary in the lead up to the final vote.

After Turing’s name was announced, presenter Nick Robinson said: “He was a man who worked almost entirely in secret, who received little credit for cracking the Nazi codes and shortening the war and who died having been branded a criminal.

“Today, he is the most celebrated figure of the 20th century, a father of computing, war hero and genius.”

Each figure was supported by a celebrity, who was charged with giving a speech in their favour. Environmental activist and broadcaster Chris Packham advocated for Turing.

Packham said the British public owed the scientist recognition because “we betrayed him and drove him to suicide”.

He told the studio audience how Turing had helped defeat the Nazis but “all he got for his trouble was a poisoned apple”.

Turing died on 7 June 1954 of cyanide poisoning, following a conviction for indecency resulting from a homosexual relationship. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time.

A half-eaten apple was found beside Turing’s body and it is thought that he killed himself by lacing the apple with the drug.

The late scientist was chosen as the greatest scientist in a category that included Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Tu Youyou.

E&T recently interviewed David Cripps, chief information security officer at blockchain firm SETL, who purchased an original Enigma Machine used at Bletchley Park on eBay.

In 2017, E&T reviewed ‘The Turing Guide’, a book about Turing’s life featuring insight from a variety of specialist authors. 

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