IT History Society Blog

The Turing Centenary – In Review

December 31st, 2012 by Allan Olley

Turing Year Logo As 2012 closes, so does the Turing Centenary Year. The hundredth anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth prompted many events, conferences and talks dedicated to Turing. A large list of such events was compiled by the Turing Centenary website.

I had the privilege to participate in two such events. One was a special session on the history of computing as part of the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Mathematics in Waterloo, Ontario. The conference also had a keynote by Andrew Hodges the author of a masterful biography of Turing.

The other was the Symposium on the History and Philosophy of Programming, part of the The Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour (AISB) and International Association for Computing and Philosophy (IACAP) World Congress 2012 in Birmingham, England. The two societies held the joint Congress in honour of the Turing centenary.

At both events I spoke on punched card machines used in the 1930s at the time Turing wrote his seminal paper on Computable Numbers that introduced the concept of a Turing Machine. My two talks were on somewhat different topics but I was trying to explore the context of computing before Turing’s work and other subsequent developments created the modern computer.

Similarly many of the talks at these sessions were not about Turing but about other aspects of the history of computing. However there was a clear inspiration among the historians I met to think more about Turing and his role in history.

Personally the events around the centenary convinced me to finally read the copy of Hodge’s biography of Turing that had been sitting on my shelf for several years. It also led me to read Edgar Daylight’s work on how Turing’s On Computable Numbers was received and transmitted by academic computer science as it formed in the 50s and early 60s.

The Turing centenary also succeeded in making Turing more visible in the wider culture. I was asked by two relatives from either side of the Atlantic about an announcement by one Turing biographer that questioned the evidence that he committed suicide. Google honoured Turing by putting a working representation of a Turing Machine front and centre on their website as on his birthday June 23rd. Although these more popular events are somewhat sensational I think it reflects a deepening of consciousness about Turing’s life and work.

The History of IT is rich and vast, so it is salutary to have these anniversaries, however arbitrary, to have a focal point for discussions.

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One Response to “The Turing Centenary – In Review”

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