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Communications of the ACM

Historical reflections

Actually, Turing Did Not Invent the Computer

John von Neumann with the IAS computer

John von Neumann with the IAS computer circa 1951.

Credit: Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center / Institute for Advanced Study

The 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing was celebrated in 2012. The computing community threw its biggest ever birthday party. Major events were organized around the world, including conferences or festivals in Princeton, Cambridge, Manchester, and Israel. There was a concert in Seattle and an opera in Finland. Dutch and French researchers built small Turing Machines out of Lego Mindstorms kits. Newspaper and magazine articles by the thousands brought Turing's life story to the public. ACM assembled 33 winners of its A.M. Turing Award to discuss Turing's ideas and their relationship to the future of computing. Various buildings, several roads, and at least one bridge have been named after him.

Dozens of books with Turing's name in the title were published or reissued. Turing was so ubiquitous that even George Dyson's book about John von Neumann was titled Turing's Cathedral, becoming the first book on the history of information technology to reach a broad audience since the one about Nazis with punched card machines. Publishers are well aware there is a strong audience for books about Nazis. The public's hunger for books about mathematicians and computer scientists is less acute, making Turing's newfound commercial clout both unlikely and heartening.


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