Alan Turing, the man who possessed one of the greatest mathematical minds in the history of mankind. We all know him as the father of modern computing and artificial intelligence.
And the history especially remembers him for his vital contribution during World War II by breaking the Nazi Enigma code system which was considered to be virtually unsolvable.
But do you know the Mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing had a strong connection to India?
Alan Turing was born on 23 June 1912 in Maida Vale, London. Alan was born to parents who spent a large chunk of their lives working in colonial India, during the period of 1912.
Turing’s father Julius Mathison Turing was an Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer posted in Chatrapur, a town under the Madras Presidency, and now, in present-day it’s called Odisha.
Turing’s father was good at speaking Indian languages like Tamil and Telugu, and further he was posted in a series of remote places like Parvatipuram, Anantapur, Srikakulam, and Kurnool, before being promoted, in 1921, to the secretary in charge of Agriculture and Commerce.
But Julius Turing was not the first Turings who had lived in India, even before him various Turing’s spent there live in India since, from the early 1700s, including Major John Turing, he was part of Siege of Srirangapatna.
Not only Turing father was connected to India, but also his mother has a strong bond with India. His mother Sarah Turing or Stoney Turing was born in Podanur, Tamil Nadu India.
She was the daughter of Edward Waller Stoney, the Chief Engineer of the Madras and South Mahratta Railway.
Sarah Turing spend her childhood in Podanur and grew up in a house in Coonoor (which has, by freak coincidence, now been bought by Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosysalthough he had no knowledge about the Turing connection).
You would be surprised to know that Sarah’s father Edward Waller Stoney was the man behind the Tungabhadra Bridge and the ‘Stoney’s Patent Silent Punkah-wheel,’ an ingenious non-creaking punkah or fan designed to ensure better sleep.
Despite this Indian background, Turing hardly lived in India. Many biographers argue that Alan was born in India, but now most settle that he was born in Maida Vale, London.
During pregnancy, Alan Turing mother Sarah Turing traveled back to home England for the baby’s birth and as was customary at the time, to avoid the social stigma against the “country-born”.
As per the plan, Sarah was to bring her son back to India after the delivery but had to leave the baby with guardians in Sussex due to health complications.
At age 6, the young Turing was about to return to India with his parents, but for health reasons, he again was kept back. Alan then spent his childhood in Maida Vale, London.
He later went on to public school, Cambridge and Princeton’s famed Institute of Advanced Study. And then the War broke out and he was recruited for the code-breakers at Bletchley Park.
Alan, meanwhile completed his education in premier institutes in the UK (Cambridge) and the USA (Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study) and was later recruited as one of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, when the War broke.
After the war, Turing spent his time working on his college idea, on the development of some of the world’s first functioning computers, i.e the Turing machine, which in the future help us to create binary computers.
Turing was also involved in philosophical debates over whether machines could think like a human brain. He devised a test to answer the question. He reasoned that if a computer acted, reacted and interacted like a sentient being, then it was sentient.
He created a test that proves whether a machine truly thinks like a human. In this simple test, an interrogator in isolation asks questions of another person and a computer.
The questioner then must distinguish between the human and the computer-based on their replies to his questions. If the computer can “fool” the interrogator, it is intelligent. Today, the Turing Test is at the heart of discussions about artificial intelligence.
But his life was a tragic one, and he was treated barbarically by the British system because of his homosexuality, which was illegal at the time. When police discovered his sexual relationship with a young man, he was arrested and came to trial in 1952.
In 1952, he was arrested for “gross indecency”, and the court gave him two choices: Go to prison, or submit to being castrated, chemically. He chose the latter. In order to avoid prison, Turing had to agree to undergo a series of estrogen injections.
Two years later, aged 42, Turing committed suicide, in one of the most poignant, romantic acts of suicide I have come across: Obsessed by Walt Disney’s Snow White, he decided, like the princess, to bite into a poisoned apple.
One night, he dipped an apple in cyanide, bit into it, and died, leaving the half-eaten apple by his bedside. In fact, there’s an urban legend that the Apple computer logo with the single bite taken out of it. is a cryptic tribute to Alan Turing.
But when Steve Jobs was asked if it was true, he replied, “No. But I really wish it was.”
What a difference a couple of generations makes. In today’s world, the 24-year-old Turing would have, of course, been pursued by VCS, set up a tech company, launched an IPO, had a net worth of $14.9 billion, and become a gay icon in the bargain.
Instead, he dies anonymous, poor, impotent and anguished. As his father might have told him in Tamil, “Idhu daan vazhkai, magane (such is life, my son).”
In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly apologized for how the scientist was treated. And in December 2013, Queen Elizabeth II formally pardoned Turing.
A British government statement said, “Turing was an exceptional man with a brilliant mind” who “deserves to be remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science.”
Below are some of my favorite quotes by Sir Alan Turing.
“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”
“I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”
“Mathematical reasoning may be regarded rather schematically as the exercise of a combination of two facilities, which we may call intuition and ingenuity.”
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