e University of Manchester commemorates the centenary of Alan Turing:
founding theorist of computer science, code-breaker and creative user of
Manchester’s early computers.
He was a member of the University from 1948 to his death in 1954.
Turing had become famous for his 1937 paper introducing the a ‘universal
machine’ – one that could do the work of all possible calculating devices.
During the Second World War, he was recruited to Bletchley Park, helping
decode German messages that had been encoded by Enigma machines.
Photo by: Rex Features ©
Oxford Road, mid-1940s
An Enigma Machine
2 Late in 1948, Turing was brought to Manchester by the new Professor of
Pure Mathematics, Max Newman, who had worked with Turing at
Cambridge and Bletchley. Newman had won a Royal Society grant to
develop a computer in Manchester, and Turing was to be Deputy Director
of the Computing Machine Laboratory.
But when Turing arrived in Manchester, he found that the world’s first
electronic stored-program computer was already operating, created by
Freddie Williams, the new Professor of Electrical Engineering, and his
assistant Tom Kilburn. Williams and Kilburn had worked together
during the war, on the secret radar project at Malvern.
Manchester University Computer, 1949
Coupland I Building
Turing helped with programming, and
from 1951 he worked in a purpose-built
annexe housing a new machine, the
Ferranti Mark I, developed with the
engineering firm Ferranti, which was
based in Manchester.
As his colleagues continued to develop the programming,
Turing was free to focus on wider issues and on projects
which could use the computer. e best known of his
Manchester publications introduced the ‘Turing test’, a way to
define whether machines could think.
Turing also worked on a computer model of a
chemical reaction-diffusion process which might
explain the emergence of patterns in biological
organisms. Turing’s research student, Bernard
Richards, applied reaction-diffusion equations to
spherical forms. As Turing expected, they
produced the symmetrical ‘spines’ seen in
microscopic sea animal called Radiolaria.
Alan Turing with two colleagues and the Ferranti Mark I computer, Jan 1951
e Manchester Museum, a part of e University of Manchester, has
created a free exhibition around Turing’s work on Morphogenesis.
Alan Turing and Life’s Enigma is open until 18 November 2012.
For other local Turing events see www.turingmanchester.com
In e University of Manchester, Turing was part of a remarkably creative
community which drew heavily on war-time experiences.
Photo by: Associated Newspapers /Daily Mail /Rex Features Photo by: Smithsonian Institution Archives
In the years aer 1945, Manchester suffered from wardamage
and continued shortages, but carried out many of
the plans which had sustained war-time morale. e
University benefited greatly from the skills, and sometimes
the equipment, which staff brought from their war work.
Blackett’s close friend and strenuous political opponent,
Michael Polanyi, had been Professor of Physical Chemistry
but turned to Social Studies in 1948. Polanyi argued with
Turing about ‘thinking machines’. His book Personal
Knowledge was a major inspiration for the later field of
Turing discussed thermodynamics with the local physical
chemists, who invited Ilya Prigogine, later a Nobel Laureate,
to debate the emergence of order in biological systems.
Turing discussed growth and form with
the Manchester botanist Claude
Wardlaw, a specialist in plant
development. Also working in the
botany department was Kathleen Drew
Baker, whose work on the life cycles of
seaweed rescued the Japanese Nori
industry from collapse.
Patrick Blackett, the head of the Physics
Department, supported the computer project, and
two of the key assistants were recent physics
graduates. Blackett gained his Nobel Prize in 1948,
but turned from cosmic ray research to
geomagnetism, helping to inspire the new science
of plate tectonics. He continued to argue strongly
for state planning of science, whilst campaigning
against Britain’s development of atomic weapons.
Charles Husband and Bernard Lovell
Among the lecturers in physics was Bernard
Lovell, who had also worked on the radar project
at Malvern. Lovell pioneered radio astronomy at
Jodrell Bank, using war-surplus radar equipment.
Lovell soon became a regular user of the Ferranti
Mark I computer.
Turing’s claim that machines could think was vigorously debated,
within the University and in the national media. His local opponents
included Polanyi and the famous neurosurgeon, Geoffrey Jefferson.
Turing committed suicide as a result of repressive attitudes towards
homosexuality. e work he shared with Manchester colleagues is now
acclaimed across the world.