Alan Turing: The Mind and Man

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Though he didn’t get to enjoy a long life, Alan Turing achieved an array of significant accomplishments in his 41 years spanning mathematics, science, logic, cryptanalysis, and even biology.

The eccentric genius who kept his tea mug chained to the radiator and wore a gas mask on his bicycle commute to combat his hayfever was always eager to solve the next challenging problem—and he certainly did, with enthusiasm and to the biggest scales possible.

Here’s why Alan Mathison Turing was one badass mind and man.

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1. The Father of Computer Science

Computing contributions from Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and countless other brilliant minds wouldn’t have been possible without Alan Turing theories on computing. His 1936 paper, “On Computable Numbers,” introduced the concept of a “Turing machine” — which consisted of symbols being manipulated on a continuous strip of tape based on a system of rules. Turing surmised that the model could be simulated to work with any computer algorithm to carry out a specific function, like solving mathematical equations.

Turing’s idea didn’t end there, though. Instead of one machine dedicated to a specific task, he envisioned one machine that could carry out various tasks via a memory system. Turing called this the “universal computing machine.” The concept would later come to fruition with the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), which wasn’t the first design of an electronic stored-program computer, but it was certainly the fastest — accessed at a speed of 1 MHz with high speed memory of 25 kilobytes.

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2. Cracking the U-Boat Enigma

At the height of World War II, German submarines were sinking 60 ships of cargo per month headed for Britain — putting the country at risk for starvation if the pace continued. The situation was so alarming that even Winston Churchill admitted the German U boat peril was the only thing that ever really frightened him during the war.

The German advantage laid in their cryptic enigma machine, which contained 10,114 variations. Turing worked in the top-secret British government division at Bletchley Park trying to decipher the German Navy’s communication. The code-cracking operation consisted of 12,000 people working three round-the-clock sessions.

In 1939, and just a few weeks after arriving at Bletchley Park, Turing sparked British intelligence efforts with his development of an electromechanical machine called the bombe. The bombe was an improvement of the Polish “bomba” created a year earlier to decode Nazi messages. Upon its implementation in March 1940, a bombe could translate an Enigma key in about an hour. As more bombes were developed, the decryption time decreased. By 1943, over 200 operating bombes were helping the British crack two messages per minute, and over 80,000 messages per month.

Turing’s breakthrough changed the scope of WWII; with Nazi location coordinates known, British ships could navigate away from German submarine striking distance, and U.S. Navy ships could attack. WWII’s momentum, which was looking grim, suddenly shifted to the Allies. It’s estimated that the code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park shortened World War II by two years, and saved anywhere from 14–21 million lives.

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3. More Than a Test

Today’s companies are starting to implement artificial intelligence and deep learning in industries across the board. From analytics and transportation to healthcare and retail, AI is the face of the future. How did we get here? In 1950, Turing kick-started efforts writing a paper called, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” which discussed the intelligence of machines. What arose was the Turing Test, which suggested that for a machine to be intelligent, its behavior would need to be indistinguishable from a human. A popular, but reverse example would be the CAPTCHA test, which identifies whether the user is a human or a computer.

Turing wasn’t looking for machines to be geniuses; he wanted them to be normal (and maybe funny):

“No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.”

Turing also wrote a chess program in 1950 called the Turbochamp. The program was so advanced that there wasn’t a computer in existence powerful to run it. In 1952, Turing tried running it on a computer but to no avail. Eager to play a game of chess with his creation, he manually ran his program by going through his algorithm and carrying out is instructions on a chessboard. A determined Turing took a half hour per move in the game. The program lost most of the games it played but did so making familiar moves. And it did win a game against the wife of one of Turing’s colleagues.

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4. Morphogenesis

Turing’s mathematical mind wasn’t restricted to technological concepts. In 1952, he extended his theoretical work to biology, with a paper titled, “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis.” Turing’s paper talked about the mathematical growth rate of an organism’s patterns (unsurprisingly now called “Turing patterns”) that stem from a uniform state of life (e.g. cheetahs, snails, frogs). Turing’s prediction was that an organism’s stripes, spirals or spots formed were based on active and deactive chemical growth that took place decades before the actual formation of the pattern. Turing’s concept — now known as the reaction-diffusion theory — was proven correct a year later when the structure of DNA was discovered.

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5. The Man

In society, we don’t usually associate smart people with sports and athleticism, let alone a superior mind like Turing’s, but he was actually quite the runner, regularly taking 30-mile runs to clear his stress and mind. It almost went further than a hobby, though.  Turing finished fifth in a qualifying event for the 1948 Olympic games. His time of 2 hours, 46.03 minutes, while not impressive by today’s standards, was only 10 minutes behind the winning time at the 1948 Olympics. A leg injury would force Turing to give up serious running for good, but he’d still participate in occasional races when he could.

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6. Underserved Decline

You’d think a person who provided even half of what Turing did would be given a castle and a lifetime honorable status to his country. Turing, who had always been open about his sexual preferences to friends, became the victim of his own comfortability. What was a routine burglary report ended up, upon questioning, resulting in Turing being charged with gross indecency. Turing had been seeing a 19-year-old boy days prior to the burglary, and he shared the details with police thinking the boy may have been implicated in the crime.

During prosecution, Turing never went back on his actions, and instead of facing imprisonment, chose to receive chemical castration and DET (defunct estrogen treatment). The estrogen shots made him develop breasts and gain weight. In attempting to reduce Turing’s libido. the chemical castration impaired his ability to think and concentrate. With his charge banning him from the United States, stripping his top-level security clearance and humiliating his sense of self, Alan Turing was experiencing a life nobody with his track record should have to face.

I mean, one would think that monumental contributions to modern computing, artificial intelligence and World War II would be enough to solidify anyone as a national hero. Turing didn’t get to enjoy that luxury, though. His wartime efforts went mostly unknown because his top-secret government work at Bletchey Park wasn’t declassified in the 1970s, a few decades after his death. Turing was of the most remarkable thinkers of any time period in history, yet his work and self were largely unknown during his life.

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7. A Bittersweet Admission

It’s hard to imagine that such a brilliant man who accomplished so much was treated so poorly by his country. In 2009, some closure and justice were finally given, after an internet campaign prompted British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to officially apologize on behalf of the British Government for how Turing had been treated. In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous pardon. In 2017, a law inspired by Turing’s treatment was enacted, which would retroactively pardon men convicted by old legislation that punished homosexual acts.

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As humans, our lives are subjected to the time period in which we live. Unfortunately for Alan Turing, he lived in the mid-20th century and not 21st-century Though his punishment was unjust, and the end of his life a rocky decline because of it, his legacy is entrenched as one of the most important people to ever live. Turing was a genius, sure, but more importantly, he was a doer.

“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”

Henry Ford: Humble Roots to Idealist Capitalist

Henry Ford left behind quite the legacy with Ford Motor Company, his direct contribution to the boom of the automobile industry in the early 1900’s and the assembly line, which revolutionized production speed and efficiency.

Ford was a unique mind when it came to engineering, but his life could have gone a variety of ways and altered history completely. He could have been a farmer, a politician or possibly the creator and leader of a city in the middle of the Amazon. You read that last one correctly — automobile mogul Henry Ford could have ended up in his own city in the Amazon. But we’ll get to that a little later.

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1. Ford and the Farm Life

Starting with his grassroots, Henry Ford’s family owned farmland just outside of Detroit in Dearborn, Michigan. As a teenager, Ford helped his family make ends meet by working on the family farm but that all changed in 1876 when his mother, Mary Ford, passed away. Her death took a toll on Ford, and while his father, William Ford, wanted Henry to take over the family farm, he told his father that he had no interest in doing so. He tolerated farming because he loved his mother while she was on the farm but he hated the inefficiencies of farming.

That would not be the last song and dance between Ford and a life of farming. When Ford was 25, he came back to work on the family farm to support his new wife and family. By this time, Ford had already built a steam engine, and within the next two years, he became the Chief Engineer of the Edison Illuminating Company’s main plant. Ford was on-call all day, every day, tasked with keeping the electricity running in the city of Detroit. Ford officially closed the book on his life as a farmer, moving on to bigger and better things.

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2. Senator Ford? President Ford?

Once the Ford Motor Company and his Model T got up and going, the local support for Ford was through the roof. In 1916, Ford won the Michigan Republican Primary without even campaigning. Imagine having that kind of support from the people around you? Zero campaigning and no real intention of running for President, yet he still won the Michigan Primary. In 1924, people were starting Ford-for-President clubs across the country, rallying behind Ford again to run for the Oval Office. Just like the farm work though, Ford had no interest in being President.

The people loved him, and he was getting high praise from the top of the government hierarchy. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson convinced Ford to run for a Democratic seat in the Senate. Ford felt that spending money on a campaign was a complete waste of money, so he ran but just like the Michigan Republican Primary two years prior, Ford didn’t spend a penny on his campaign. Ford ended up losing by only 4500 votes, which is an extremely slim margin. If we’re being honest, Ford probably preferred to lose this election anyway. His interested laid elsewhere and eventually took him into the Amazon.

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3. You Are Building Your Own City? In the Amazon Rainforest?

Ah yes, Fordlandia! Ford was a brilliant mind, and many of his ideas and inventions have revolutionized our lives. But Fordlandia, Ford’s city in the Amazon Forest was one of Ford’s off-the-wall ideas driven purely out of capitalism. In 1927, with plenty of money at his disposal and his idealistic views, Ford bought a chunk of land in the Amazon about the size of Connecticut. This land was to serve a specific purpose though; the people who lived there would harvest rubber to make tires for his automobiles.

Fordlandia, an 18-hour boat trip from the nearest city, was meant to be a utopian paradise while supplying the Ford Motor Company with rubber to make tires. Sounds like a great idea but like many things that look good on paper, this one didn’t work out. Some early revolts and riots required assistance from the Brazilian Army to subdue the violence, many rubber trees were not growing, and insects ravaged the ones that did develop.

Fordlandia never became the rubber resource that Ford had intended it to be. The city had been around for about a decade, but once World War II began, Ford’s focus turned to aid war efforts and Fordlandia started to fall by the wayside. When WWII ended, Ford’s health was diminishing, so the control of Fordlandia was given to his grandson, Henry Ford II. Ford II saw Fordlandia as an underperforming asset and quickly sold the land back to the Brazilian government for a fraction of what his grandfather originally paid for it. And just like that, Fordlandia was no more.

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If Henry Ford was alive, he’d rock VKN.

4. Interesting Ford One-Liners:

  • Built his first steam engine in 1878 when he was 15
    years old. Fif-teen.
  • Built his first gasoline engine in 1893.
  • Started in airline company during WWI but it failed
    due to poor sales.
  • Ford Motor Company was his third attempt at an
    automobile company.
  • Henry Ford Company and Detroit Automobile Company were
    his first two ventures and both failed.
  • Holds 161 unique patents in his name.

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5. Wrapping Up Ford

We all know about Henry Ford and his impact on the automobile industry, but his mind was something that we don’t see today. In a 1928 interview with the Detroit Times, Ford revealed that the source of his inspiration and his work was a mysterious force. He dedicated his brilliance to a ‘Master Mind.’ He said: “Somewhere is a Master Mind sending brainwave messages to us. There is a Great Spirit. I never did anything by my own volition. I was pushed by invisible forces within and without me.”

Master Mind or not, Henry Ford was a badass. Family pressure could have forced him into being a farmer for the rest of his life, but he decided he knew better. Society tried to pressure him into running for political office, and while he gave it a brief shot, he only put his name on the ballot. Even though Fordlandia was one of his failures, it showed Ford was an off-the-wall thinker whose capitalistic views pushed him to do anything to help his company. This was the type of guy, even with his shortcomings, who could do anything he wanted and didn’t care what anyone else thought.