Imagined by WWII codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing in the 1930s, the Universal Machine provided the theoretical basis for all modern computing.
“We owe him a huge debt,” said Stephen Fry, who has championed Turing’s innovation throughout the vote. “His Universal Machine idea laid the logical and mathematical foundations of the technology you’re using to read this.” The theoretical basis for all modern computers was laid down when Alan Turing (1912-54) imagined a ‘universal machine’. He described a device that would read symbols on a tape and proposed that the tape could be used to program the machine. However it was not until later that Turing’s ideas were realised as practical machines.
Turing was certainly the most original British thinker on the subject of machine-based calculation and artificial intelligence since Charles Babbage in the 19th century. In the 1930s, he used mathematical logic to analyse the working of a theoretical computer. The outbreak of the Second World War meant that he could apply both his mathematical skills and machine theory to the practical business of code-breaking. The electro-mechanical ‘bombe’ device benefitted from his contributions. By 1945, Turing was working on designing a fully-fledged programmable computer known as ACE, before joining Manchester University and the Mark 1 computer project there. Turing’s interest in computing was widespread and imaginative, from the esoteric ‘Turing test’ and the ability of machines to think; to prototype computer chess programmes of the type commonly played today.
The Royal Society obituary of Alan Turing, written in 1955, is striking for its omission of the most famous facts surrounding Turing’s life and death: his wartime cryptanalysis work at Bletchley Park and his suicide following a conviction for homosexuality.
Read the Royal Society’s journal, Interface Focus’s themed issue on “Computability and the Turing centenary” organized by S. Barry Cooper and Philip Maini. Free to access online now.