Adieu, Alan

Posted on January 05, 2014 by Richard Hoptroff

Bletchley, 5th January 2014

When I was a teenager, I played in a brass band. It was fun and musical, but I mostly remember it for my hapless and totally disastrous attempts to charm the girls in the band. Oh, and I do remember one performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The cannons were crow-scarers, and because the stage was small, they were under my seat. That experience, and an explosion in a chemistry lab at school, mean I've had ringing in my ears ever since. (Tip: don't mix hydrogen and chlorine - they have a blast.)

Anyhow, the band must play on. We rehearsed in a pavilion on a small country estate. I remember it as fairly dilapidated - the cricket field outside was damp and dewy; boggy, more like a rugby pitch; even I, with my limited aesthetic, could tell the manor house was an ugly Victorian new-money extravaganza.

The band was Bletchley Brass Band. And the country estate was Bletchley Park.

At the time, nobody knew its history. Though I do remember there was an awful lot of gadgetry about - radio equipment mostly; valves, relays, fuses. Maybe that's how I got into learning electronics.

Then later, the secret came out. It was a code-breaking centre during the Second World War, decoding the Enigma ciphers of the Axis Alliance. They never knew we could hear them, which gave Churchill terrible moral dilemmas. Do we avert an attack, at risk that it will that let on that we can crack their codes? Should we let it go ahead, keep our powder dry and hope our intelligence can help us net bigger fish? In the end, schemes were concocted to make it look like we always got lucky. Convoys would detour to "make port for repairs", when in fact they were avoiding a U-boat patrol. That kind of thing.

So those valves, relays and fuses saved lives. Those intellectual pursuits in a damp, dewy park in the middle of nowhere saved thousands from an Atlantic grave, and secured open Allied supply lines. Probably shortened the war by a year. It's hard to know. Some things are still secret; the people of the time are fading away.

The intellectual force behind this work was Alan Turing. Before the war, he was a formidable mathematician. Working to solve Hilbert's Entscheidungsproblem ("Is there a definitive answer to this question?"), Alan devised a theoretical machine, the a-machine (now known as the Turing machine), that could find answers to questions. The war compelled him to make a real one, which he used to crack codes. Today, you call it a computer. Or a mobile phone. You are probably staring at one as you read this.

Sadly for Alan, being gay was not legal at the time, and he was found guilty and persecuted by the state after the war.  He died of cyanide poisoning in 1954 at just 41 years old. 

Her Majesty granted Alan Turing a pardon last week.  Adieu, Alan.

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