If you are not a computer science student chances are you don’t know who Alan Turing was. This year we celebrate Turing Centenary, that is the 100th anniversary of his birthday. Since computers are such ubiquitous devices today, and the computer is one of your college needs, I believe that every computer user should know who Alan Turing was.

He is often considered to be the father of Computer Science. In fact, I should say that Turing is the grandfather of Computer Science while John von Neumann is its father.

Alan Mathison Turing invented the so-called Turing machine in the 1930s, which is the abstract model of a modern computer, before any real computer was built in the 20th century. The Turing machine was exclusively built on paper (as a mathematical construct) and it was the preliminary theoretical step that permitted the building of the first general-purpose electronic computer, ENIAC, in 1946.

“And what is a Turing machine?” you might ask. It is an abstract machine and it has a precise mathematical definition, which I am not going to write here because it is quite long and complicated, and, honestly you don’t expect any mathematics reading this post. Still, a real computer is even more complicated! The most amazing thing about Turing machines is that they can compute whatever a real computer computes (only it could take much, much more time to do the job.)

Alan Turing, who was born on 23 June 1912, had many other contributions to computer science. I just want to add that he also led British war-time efforts to crack German encryption codes.

Although he was by then a distinguished scientist, he was convicted of homosexuality-related offences in the 1950s, and he committed suicide two years later. In 2009, the United Kingdom then-prime minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology, but the pardon was rejected earlier this year on the grounds that the convictions were for something that at the time was regarded as a criminal offence.

Since I mentioned John von Neumann, let me write a few words about his contribution to computer science. John von Neumann was a great mathematician with important contributions to computer science. He is known (among other scientific contributions) for the “von Neumann architecture” which is basically the same architecture of the current modern computers. In 1948-1949 he consulted for the programming part of the ENIAC and EDVAC computers, the first computers with a stored program. That is, computers where the data and the program were both stored in the computer’s memory. He actually devised the instruction set for the modified ENIAC computer.

Although John von Neumann was older than Alan Turing, it is von Neumann who is citing Turing in his work “The Computer and the Brain” published posthumously:

“The English logician A. M. Turing showed in 1937 (and various Computing machine experts have put this into practice since then in various particular ways) that it is possible to develop code instruction systems for a computing machine which cause it to behave as if it were another, specified, computing machine.”

John von Neumann was born in 1903 and died of bone cancer in 1957. Both von Neumann and Turing are among the computer science pioneers. We owe them all the wonderful conveniences of computers, whether they are desktop, laptop, or PCs.

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