Science Museum Presents Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy


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Codebreaker: Life and Legacy of Alan Turing

Alan Turing, 29th March 1951. Image supplied by NPL Archive, Science Museum

London’s Science Museum is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, Enigma codebreaker and father of modern computing.

The exhibit, Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s life and legacy, looks at the work of Alan Mathison Turing (1912-1954) and his enduring influence on the development of computers and theory in the 21st century. Codebreaker features the most comprehensive collection of items related to the scientist and his achievements, including machines he designed, as well as machines and devices that influenced his work.

The project is curated by David Rooney and the Science Museum has expressed their gratitude to Google for their support of this project.

Turing Exhibit: Curator David Rooney’s Comments

In a recent press release, David Rooney said: “The exhibition is an opportunity to present the remarkable work of a man whose influence reaches into perhaps the most widespread and increasingly popular public pastime of the 21st century, the use of the personal computing device, yet whose name is probably unfamiliar to the vast majority of people.″

Decoded Science had the opportunity to interview David Rooney further, and asked him to discuss the challenges of this type of exhibition:

It is always a challenge to curate an exhibition about the life of a theoretician like Alan Turing, since many of his ideas were very abstract. But he was also a practical man with interests across a wide range of fields in science and technology, which meant we could look across a broad range of Science Museum artefacts to find exhibits to illuminate his work.

Dorothy Hodgkin's model showing crystal structure of vitamin B12.c. 1957

Molecular model of vitamin B12 made for the Science Museum by the celebrated scientist Dorothy Hodgkin. Image supplied by the Science Museum, London.

Two favoured examples came when we wanted to understand the real-world impact of his  pioneering ‘Pilot ACE’ computer, which forms the centrepiece of the show. Alongside it we display a large fragment of fuselage wreckage from BOAC Flight 781 which crashed in 1954, as well as an exquisitely detailed molecular model of vitamin B12 made for the Science Museum by the celebrated scientist Dorothy Hodgkin. Both Hodgkin’s work and the aircraft crash investigation employed Turing’s computer in high-speed data analysis crucial to the success of the projects.”

David Rooney also tells us that, “Looking beyond Alan Turing’s many scientific and technological achievements, from wartime codebreaking to computing, thinking machines to morphogenesis, it was important to us that we presented a rounded, biographical portrait of Turing in order also to understand his motivations and frustrations, hopes and fears, as well as his world-changing scientific work.  On show in the exhibit is a set of letters written by Alan Turing to the mother of his childhood friend, Chris Morcom. These have never been seen in public before. As a teenager at school, Turing loved Morcom, although it was unrequited. Tragedy came in 1930, when Morcom died from tuberculosis, aged just 18. Turing was 17, and in his grief he sketched out for Mrs Morcom ideas about the spirit living on after death — ideas that later became realised in his pioneering work in machine intelligence published in 1950.”

Codebreaker Collection

Codebreaker features artifacts selected from the Science Museum’s own comprehensive collection, as well as items loaned by external bodies, including GCHQ (successor to Bletchley Park); the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford; the University of Manchester; the National Physical Laboratory; the family of Christopher Morcom; and Sir Michael Jagger. The display features a number of relevant items such as a Hollerith punch-card sorting machine, a Cybernetic tortoise invented by William Grey Walter, and information about the Universal Turing Machine.

The exhibition is arranged in six sections:

  1. Computing Before Computers
  2. Alan Turing’s War
  3. ACE – the Automatic Computing Engine
  4. Can Machines Think?
  5. A Matter of Life and Death
  6. Programming Computers Today

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