Dr James Peters writes:
The Library has recently received a previously-unknown cache of correspondence of the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing (1912-1954).
This complements our existing Turing collection, which is part of the National Archive for the History of Computing (NAHC). Archive material relating to Turing is scarce, so having some of his academic correspondence is a welcome and important addition to our holdings.
This file of letters dates from early 1949 until Turing’s death in June 1954, during the period he worked at the University’s Computing Machine Laboratory. It was discovered unexpectedly by Professor Jim Miles of the School of Computer Science, who is the School’s history co-ordinator, and has been reorganising a store room of artefacts deep in the Kilburn building. Professor Miles immediately recognised the file’s significance, commenting “I was astonished to find such a thing that had remained out of sight for so long.”
The file has now been catalogued (as the Turing additional papers), and is available for consultation in the Special Collections of The University of Manchester Library. It comprises over 140 items of correspondence, both incoming letters and copy replies. The latter are typed, and were mostly dictated by Turing to his secretary, but a few letters include his annotations, usually where he adds mathematical notation to problems he is discussing.
Although the letters mostly confirm what is already known about Turing’s work at Manchester, they do provide additional information about some of his preoccupations at this time, and also how his work was understood by others. Several letters are requests to use the Mark I computer, for which he had administrative responsibility, and even at this early stage, a diverse group of researchers – chemists, engineers and economists – were using it for their work.
Many letters also deal with Turing’s research. Turing continued to publish highly innovative work during this period, most notably the articles “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950), which explored the relationships between human and machine intelligence, and the “The chemical basis of morphogenesis” (1953), which set out a highly original view of the chemical and physical bases of the development of biological form, and used computational techniques to try to demonstrate this.
The correspondence reveals considerable interest in this work; Turing is invited to deliver lectures and talks, and to discuss the progress of his research. Turing himself recognised that as he was working outside his usual area of expertise he needed to persuade mainstream biologists. As he tells the biologist Michael Swann, “I am really more anxious to know what the biologists will have to say about it”; although he ruefully informs another correspondent that “most biologists don’t know enough mathematics to see what it is about”.
Several letters reveal a growing popular interest in artificial intelligence and the potential of digital computers. There is correspondence relating to Turing’s contribution to the BBC radio programme on “Can machines think?” in early 1952. A bemused Turing also has to disappoint a couple of correspondents who believed a chess match was to be held between the Mark I computer and human experts, although he acknowledges he is “interested in the possibility of making machines do this sort of thing.”
Turing’s war work on Enigma was still secret at this time, and apart from one letter from the director of GCHQ about Bletchley Park, this is not mentioned. The correspondence is similarly silent on Turing’s personal life in this period. The story is now well-known of his conviction for an illegal sex act in 1952, followed by a period of enforced hormone treatment, and ultimately his suicide in June 1954.
It is tempting to speculate about Turing’s personal situation from some incidental comments in his correspondence, but too much should not be read into this. For example, a proposed visiting lectureship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1952/3, about which Turing was initially enthusiastic, is not pursued, and a planned lecture tour to Germany in early 1953 is cancelled for unclear reasons. A request to attend a conference in the US in April 1953 meets with an impassioned negative: ”I would not like the journey, and I detest America”.
Despite these difficult circumstances, the letters make clear Turing’s professionalism, his willingness to help other researchers, and the high regard in which he was held by colleagues in the UK and the USA.
Understandably, this remarkable find has already generated considerable media interest. Watch the BBC Northwest Tonight interview with Professor Jim Miles and Dr James Peters:
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