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Alan Turing’s Out-tray: cache of letters found

A collection of nearly 150 letters to and by Alan Turing has been found in a neglected filing cabinet in a storeroom at Manchester University. Turing worked at the university from May 1948, when he was appointed Deputy Director of the university’s Computing Machine Laboratory. There was no Director as such, but the Head of the Mathematics Department was Professor Max Newman, a distinguished mathematician who had been a Bletchley Park codebreaker during the war. Newman’s influence on Turing went back to the 1930s, when his lectures at Cambridge had inspired Turing to work on the Entscheidungsproblem, and this led to Turing’s seminal 1936 paper ‘On Computable Numbers’.

 

The papers which have just surfaced cover the period from March 1949 to 2 June 1954, and thus run right up to Turing’s death on 7 June. I have not yet been to Manchester to see the originals, but I have read the archivist’s synopsis of every one. Despite there being numerous items written after Turing’s trial and conviction for ‘gross indecency’ in March 1952, no reference is made to any of the problems he faced at this time: his trial, the verdict, the hormone injections and psychiatric analysis, the loss of his Security Clearance, etc. In fact, they shed little light on Turing the man, although he does make some admissions as to his dislike of the USA, his lack of skill as a reviewer, and the gap between his writing and speaking styles.

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The subject matter of many of the letters testifies to his growing success and reputation as a mathematician. He receives many requests to write papers and books, to speak at conferences, to review papers, to advise other academics and students on research, to supply copies of his own papers (we’re talking here not just pre-internet days, but pre-photocopier, too), and to permit the Manchester University computer to be used to do work for others. Although none of the letters is outstandingly important, their sheer number and diversity demonstrate clearly that Turing was a highly respected mathematician, right at the forefront of the newly emerging computer revolution, whose views were sought by other eminent mathematicians across the world.

 

The first Manchester computer, the one Turing used, was called ‘The Baby’, but it was superseded by a series of ‘Atlas’ machines, which remained in use into the late 1960s. It is here that I can reveal a connection from my own past. In the 1960s, I was working for a firm of consulting civil engineers, and we wished to design some large asymmetrical suspended road slabs as part of Newcastle’s Central Motorway East. Computer analysis was the best way forward, so we commissioned Manchester University to run our analyses overnight (day-times were reserved for in-house use). Now comes the bit that anyone under 50 will find incredible. We sent our inputs to Manchester, as punched paper tapes, on the train – and the stacks of fanfold computer paper with the Atlas results came back by train the next day. This was the highest of high-tech in the 1960s!

 

Of course, in those days, I knew nothing of Turing. Having been researching his achievements during the last twenty years, I am now often asked to speak about Turing and his work. In August, it was the Turing Fest in Edinburgh, and in October I am contributing to a 2-day study tour about Alan Turing, organised by the New Scientist.

Hacking Enigma | US Tour 2018 | Dr Enigma is coming to America!

Due to increasing demand for the Enigma machine to appear in the USA, I’m putting on a special tour to the US so that more people get the chance to hear the fascinating Engima story, and play with a real Enigma machine.

The event: ‘Hacking Engima | How The Nazi Codes Were Cracked’ will be coming to US shores in February 2018. I am now taking bookings so contact me asap if you would like to host an event. More details below.

Hacking Engima | How The Nazi Codes Were Cracked

Learn about perhaps the world’s greatest ever hack, how some of the greatest minds in history broke the Enigma codes, something Nazi Germany never believed possible.

 

In this unique event, British Enigma Machine expert, owner and speaker, Dr Mark Baldwin, will present the incredible Enigma Machine story and perform a live demo where the audience get to play with an original, iconic Enigma Machine.

Format:

The Enigma Machine Story (45m + 15m for Q&A)
One hour talk on the Enigma Machine and how World War 2 Codebreakers broke German ciphers; the fascinating history, technical explanation and human story behind one of the world’s most important hacks.

 

Live Demo of an original Enigma Machine (30m)
Live demonstration of Dr Baldwin’s personal Enigma Machine, where the audience can not only get up close but actually touch, photograph and play with a real, genuine Enigma Machine, and ask further questions.

Dr Baldwin’s talk and live demo is hugely popular with the audience, read the Enigma machine talk testimonials to hear what people are saying about the experience.

Note: Length and content of the event can be adjusted to suit audience.

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Image based on photo taken by Si Barber

Is The Imitation Game a true story?

What a spell-binding film but what a travesty! To make the story even more dramatic than real life, director Morten Tyldum introduced numerous distortions. The website Information is Beautiful analyses 17 films which claim to be based on true stories, scoring each scene according to how true it actually is.

Of the 17, ‘The Imitation Game’ comes a miserable bottom, with a truth rating of only 41.4%, way below any of the others.

One part that was accurate however, was the depiction of the Engima machine that was shown in the short U-boat scene. I know this because it was my 4-rotor Enigma machine that was used in the film!

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Dr Baldwin’s 4-rotor Enigma machine, as seen in The Imitation Game

A wacky typewriter: Enigma machine bought for €100 in Romania

I have often heard stories of people who saw a ‘funny looking typewriter’, but failed to buy it. Later, they realised it had been an Enigma machine, but it had gone by the time they went back. I’ve always treated such tales as urban myths, but a more credible version of the story emerged via the BBC last month.

A knowledgeable Romanian mathematician spotted a ‘funny looking typewriter’ in a flea market, priced at 100 Euros. Recognising exactly what it actually was (a 3-rotor Enigma) he snapped it up, and sent it to auction, when it fetched 42,000 Euros. I am reliably informed that the buyer is now looking for £75,000.

It’s thought that around 30,000 Enigma machines were made, but although the vast majority were destroyed during the war, there are still some hiding out there, waiting to be found. Keep your eyes open!

Enigma Machine @ Turing Fest 2017

Last week I was in Edinburgh, invited by the organisers to speak at the Turing Fest – Scotland’s biggest Tech gathering.

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My role was not only to give a presentation explaining something of the workings of the Enigma machine, but also to mount a display, allowing participants to operate a genuine wartime Enigma machine.

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Despite being an almost one hundred year old piece of technology, the Enigma Machine story continues to fascinate younger generations and I was presenting alongside speakers from some of today’s top tech companies including: Google, Microsoft, Y Combinator, TechCrunch, Skyscanner, Moz, Trello and Github.

My hands-on demonstrations and my talk seemed to go down well with what was cleary a very technologically-savvy group of people, and one of my younger audiences.

A big thanks to Turing Fest for inviting me up to Scotland to share the Engima Story with such a lovely and interested crowd. I hope to see you again next year.

Here are a few tweets from some of the Turing Fest attendees: