Turing’s Universal Machine: The Top British Invention of Past 100 years

I knew he would do it!

Alan Turing conceived of the “Universal Machine” as a computer which could carry out instructions rather than being designed and built for a special purpose in hardware. This single invention created what we now know as “software”, being the machine design expressed in program code.

This invention has now the award, by public vote, of being the top invention by a British inventor of the past 100 years. In my opinion this perhaps the best invention of all countries on the planet over the past 100 years, and may remain so for at least another 100 years into the future.

You can read more about this on the Great British Innovations Vote Page.

Receiving 24% of the votes, he just edged out the “Mini” car with 23% into second place, X-ray crystallograpy with 13% in third, and the discovery of pulsars with 6% in fourth place.

The Turing Enigma

It is just over 100 years since the birth of Alan Turing, and it is becoming apparent in retrospect how much this man, who died at the age of 42, contributed to our modern world.

Turing is well known to everyone who studies Computer Science, as the person after whom the “Universal Turing Machine” is named, but few realise that he single-handedly created the computer technology we know of today, and created the stored program computer before the Americans created theirs. This fact remained hidden in the UK archives concerning their war-time code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park and was only made public relatively recently. Turing’s work was featured in the movie “Enigma” which concerned the breaking of the codes of the German Enigma machine, which many believe won the war for the allies.

Turing is also the original creator of artificial intelligence as well as the founder of the original ideas that became neural networks, and it may be that the elements of his PhD thesis are still to be used to create new generations of computing machinery.

We owe a significant amount to Turing and history will reflect his greatness long after the others have come and gone and been forgotten about. It is my prediction that he will be seen in many centuries in the future as one of the top scientists of all time, alongside Archimedes and Netwon.

I recommend a simple start to getting to know about his work better. Check the site www.alanturing.net, the home of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing, which contains digital reproductions of much of Turing’s work. Another site of interest is the Turing Archive at Cambridge University, where Turing was a Fellow.

If you have the opportunity, also get hold of and read, cover to cover, the recent book “Turing : Pioneer of the Information Age”, by Jack Copeland, the Director of the Turing Archive. This is a good place to start to get to know our past and how we got to this place where digital computing is perhaps the most predominant activity in the whole of modern civilisation, given that all mobile phones, and much modern equipment, contains some computing device at its core.