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What 'the Imitation Game' Didn't Tell You About Turing's Greatest Triumph


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Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

The film "The Imitation Game" does a poor job of portraying the contributions of pioneer Alan Turing to computer science.

Credit: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

"The Imitation Game," a film about computer science pioneer Alan Turing's efforts to break Nazi codes during World War II, has received a great deal of attention, but the film does a poor job of accurately portraying Turing's contributions to computer science.

Turing's most indelible contribution to the field, arguably its founding document, was a 1936 paper, "On Computable Numbers," in which he laid out the concept of computable numbers and a device that could use 1s and 0s to carry out computations. His idea would be built upon by John von Neumann, who was a faculty member at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study when Turing was studying at the school. "Turing invented computer science and the idea of the computer, and John von Neumann built the first stored-program computer," says Andrew W. Appel, chair of the Princeton computer science department.

"The Imitation Game" instead implies it was Turing's work on the code-breaking machine the Bombe that marked the mathematician's major contribution to the field of computing, even though the Bombe itself was not even a computer and was not invented by Turing, who instead improved upon the design of a similar machine being used by Polish codebreakers.

The film also mischaracterizes several aspects of Turing's personality and his time breaking codes at Bletchley Park.

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