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A Fallen Genius: Turing and the Computer

Alan Turing

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are historically noted as the geniuses behind the technology that produced modern-day computers. Imagine if they had developed these innovations during the 30s. That would be incredible, right? Well, the events that shaped the computer world actually began in 1936, when an English mathematician named Alan Turing introduced his plans of a machine that would compute even the most difficult of mathematical problems. To me, it sounds as if he was developing a giant calculator with none of the software available in today’s computer landscape. Yet in 1936, this was seen as radically advanced thinking and generally frowned upon by his peers. Below is a picture of Turing’s computer, or automatic computing engine.

Even though Turing built important machinery during World War II, including the machine that deciphered the “Enigma Code” created by the Germans, the idea of a supercomputer was never accepted as a mathematical device, let alone a commercial means of accessing public information. Perhaps Turing’s personal life played a role in the disinterest surrounding his innovative machine. Turing was convicted of homosexuality in 1952 when homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom. Rather than serving a prison sentence, Turing was administered into treatment and was ultimately chemically castrated. He died in 1954 from apparent cyanide poisoning, with authorities deeming his death as a suicide. Family members refuted that claim, stating his death was completely accidental. With homosexuality no longer being a criminal offense in the U.K., it is a somewhat sad story to reflect on. How can society view a genius in a negative light, subjecting him to physical punishment for his sexuality and dismissing the potential to advance mankind into a new and exciting technological era? If Turing were alive today, he would be mentioned in the same breath as Jobs and Gates. Chalk it up to being born in the wrong place during the wrong time period.