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The Evolution of Computers: Key Resources (July 2013): The Year of Alan Turing

By Kyle D. Winward

The Year of Alan Turing

It seems apt to begin this essay with a section on Alan Turing, regarded as the father of computer science.  The year 2012 was one of marked celebration for this renowned computer pioneer, with many events organized to commemorate the centennial of his birth in 1912.  Alan Turing was a mathematician and the creator of the “theoretical computing machine” also known as a “universal computing machine,” or in contemporary computer science, a “Turing Machine.”  An excellent description is available in “Turing Machines—What They Are, What They Aren’t.”   Turing was also a contributor to World War II-era British intelligence automated code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park, but those efforts were not publicly known until the 1970s.  In 2012 a number of international conferences were held in honor of Turing.  The website 2012 The Alan Turing Year includes links to conferences, related multimedia, and other news and events about the Turing centennial.

Published in 2012 to coincide with the centenary is Alan M. Turing, a new edition of the seminal biography written by his mother, Sara Turing, which includes an added memoir by his brother, John Turing.  Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age, B. Jack Copeland’s most recent book on Turing, is a very readable and engaging biographical account of Turing’s work and personal life, and is supported by more than forty pages of notes.  Copeland, an expert on Turing, is also creator of Turing Archive for the History of Computing.  Other recent explorations of Turing’s life are Andrew Hodges’s Alan Turing: The Enigma (centennial edition) and David Leavitt’s The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer.  These biographical works frame Turing’s technical achievements alongside coverage of his personal life, his struggles of being a homosexual during a time when homosexuality was a crime, and his tragic suicide at the age of forty-one.

In The Universal Computer: The Road from Leibniz to Turing, Martin Davis summarizes the work of seven mathematicians leading to the computational theories of Turing.  Another significant earlier work about Turing is Alan Turing’s Automatic Computing Engine: The Master Codebreaker’s Struggle to Build the Modern Computer, edited by B. Jack Copeland, which details Turing’s research environment in designing the Automatic Computing Engine; this work is enhanced with primary documents and photographs.  For a more in-depth exploration of primary source material, readers should consult The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour through Alan Turing’s Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine by Charles Petzold, and Turing Archive for the History of Computing, which contains digital copies or original documents.