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Alan Turing, genius code breaker and mathematician

WHEN you consider what some people do to earn a knighthood, it’s quickly apparent that there have been some glaring omissions in our history.
One of the worst such examples, in our view, is the case of former Hampton resident Alan Turing, the genius code breaker and mathematician who cracked the German Enigma code and prevented England from being starved into submission by the U-boat fleet during the Second World War.                                                                                                                                      
Alan Mathison Turing, often referred to as the father of modern computing and one of the most creative thinkers in recent British history, lived for part of his life in Hampton.
Turing was most famous for his work during the Second World War when he was part of the British government's Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park.
As one of the leaders of the code-breaking team in Hut 8 at the highly secret Buckinghamshire establishment, Turing was responsible for helping to break the complex naval code system used by the Kriegsmarine to control U-boat wolf packs and surface raider movements during the Battle of the Atlantic and to direct them to the right areas to attack vulnerable convoys heading to and from the United States and further afield.
It was an absolutely crucial phase of the war when Britain, an island nation, was totally dependent on supplies of food and munitions arriving by sea and, for a time, it looked as though the well-organised and tenacious wolf packs would win the war for Germany.
But thanks to Turing’s extraordinary mind, he devised a number of electromechanical instruments to help narrow down possible solutions to the encrypted German ciphers to a manageable number for further investigation.
One of the most famous of these machines was called a ‘bombe’ and consisted of a series of electronic wheels and relays which could work through the millions of possible combinations for each code at what, at the time, was a phenomenal speed.
These instruments are recognised as the foundation of modern day computers and led Turing to become interested in artificial intelligence. He went on to devise the so-called ‘Turing Test’ to define whether a machine is "intelligent".
Briefly, this test is based on the concept that if a human cannot distinguish a machine from another human being by talking to it, the machine is defined as being ‘intelligent.’
Many subsequent political commentators have jokingly suggested that the Turing Test could equally well be applied to politicians of all different hues to discover whether there is any real intelligence at work!
Turing’s rise to fame followed an often difficult path.
Born in Maida Vale, London, in June 1912, he spent most of his young life with friends of his parents in Hastings as his father was a member of the British Civil Service and was posted to India.
From a very early age, it was clear that the boy bordered on being a genius and he was eventually sent to Sherborne public school in Dorset.
Even there, Turing found it difficult to fit in – with his natural gift for mathematics and science, the headmaster at Sherborne even wrote to his parents suggesting that it if wanted to concentrate on learning science subjects, he might be wasted at Sherborne which, like most schools of its age, concentrated more on teaching the classics rather than science-related subjects.
Alan Turing eventually graduated with a first class honours degree in mathematics from Cambridge and went on to study at Princeton University in the United States where he obtained a PhD.
He returned to Cambridge and worked on a number of theoretical projects designed to demonstrate the power of machines in helping to calculate and solve problems.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, Turing was quickly signed up by the Government Code and Cypher School GCCS) and began work in earnest as a crptanalygist.
In 1945, Turing was made an OBE for his wartime services and shortly after that, came to work at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington on the design of another early computer – ACE – the Automatic Computing Engine – which was eventually built in 1950.
It was during this period that Turing lived in Hampton for nearly two years in a guesthouse – Ivy House ¬– in Church Street, Hampton.
By that time, Turing had accepted a post with Manchester University where he continued to work on computing models and algorithms.
The diminutive genius had always acknowledged his homosexuality and during his invaluable wartime service, it had never presented a problem to the authorities.
But as with so much of his life, his sexuality was touched by tragedy. 
One of his early lovers died suddenly when Turing was just a teenager and it was another lover who indirectly led to Turing’s tragic end.
The lover broke into Turing's house but when he reported the crime to the police they decided that Turing himself was the true criminal -because he was gay.
The authorities gave Turing an unpalatable choice – go to prison or suffer chemical castration by undergoing a course of oestrogen injections. Turing chose the latter course but it led to a severe bout of depression and, ultimately, to his suicide in June 1954, when he ate a cyanide-laced apple. He was just 41.
On September 10 2009, following an internet campaign, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British Government for the way in which Turing was treated after the war.
Scant consolation for a genius that deserved far better from the country he saved from Nazi occupation.
If ever anyone deserved a posthumous knighthood, in our opinion, it is Turing. Let us know what you think.
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