If anyone knows about fighting against the odds, it's eminent physicist Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed as suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease at the age of 21 and told he only had years to live. As we all know, the 70-year-old Hawking has gone on to establish himself as one of the most brilliant thinkers of our times.
But in his latest quest, Hawking and 10 other high-profile figures, face a fight against a seemingly immoveable foe: the British establishment. Their aim? To win a pardon for war-time code breaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing.
Hawkings, along with 10 other signatories, including the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees of Ludlow and Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society have written an open letter calling on the British government to cast aside previous intransigence, and formally pardon Turing.
“We urge the prime minister formally to forgive this British hero, to whom we owe so much as a nation, and whose pioneering contribution to computer sciences remains relevant even today,” they wrote in a letter to The Telegraph.
Turing was convicted of homosexuality in 1952, when the law perversely stated a person's sexuality could constitute a crime. The conviction ultimately resulted in Turing's untimely death at the age of just 41.
We have, sadly, been here before. The last government rejected calls for Turing to be pardoned, with then-prime minister Gordon Brown apologising, but deciding that Turing's conviction in 1952 was valid.
Hawking and his colleagues remain unmoved by such flimsy arguments.
“To those who seek to block attempts to secure a pardon with the argument that this would set a precedent, we would answer that Turing’s achievements are sui generis. It is time his reputation was unblemished,” they said.
Surely a pardon would be the most fitting tribute to finish the celebrations that marked the 100th year of Turing's birth?
Computer enthusiasts at The National Museum of Computing, home of the rebuilt Colossus electronic computer have completed another remarkable restoration project, rebooting the Harwell Dekatron – otherwise known as the Witch – making it the world's oldest original working computer.
The team at the museum, led Kevin Murrell has spent three years restoring the Harwell Dekatron, having first come across the machine as a teenager.
“In 1951 the Harwell Dekatron was one of perhaps a dozen computers in the world, and since then it has led a charmed life surviving intact while its contemporaries were recycled or destroyed,” said Murrell.
The Harwell Dekatron was originally used in 1951 to check atomic calculations, and while it could take up to 10 minutes to multiply two numbers together, it could chug away for days on end, producing error-free results.
Weighing in at 2.5 tonne, sporting 828 flashing Dekatron valves, 480 relays and a bank of paper tape readers, the 2x6x1m Harwell Dekatron is world away from today's supercomputers – or even the smartphones and tablets we carry.
“To see it in action is to watch the inner workings of a computer - something that is impossible on the machines of today,” said Murrell.
By 1957, the Harwell Atomic Energy Research Establishment had no more need for its Dekatron computer, and gave it to the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College - where it was renamed the Witch (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell).
The National Museum of Computing, located at Bletchley Park, is home to the largest collection of functional historic computers in Europe, including a rebuilt Colossus, the world’s first electronic semi-programmable computer.
The Bletchley Park Trust has recreated a special Alan Turing edition of the Monopoly board game, which uses artwork from a board originally hand-drawn over 60 years ago and played on by the great computer pioneer.
The commemorative board has been released during the year Turing would have celebrated his 100th birthday.
In the edition, the squares around the Monopoly board and the revised Chance and Community Chest cards tell the story of Turing's life, while the icons and artwork reflect key elements of the original hand-drawn board.
The early board was used by Turing in the 1950s when he used to play with William Newman, the son of his mentor Max Newman. Newman was responsible for the board's design, which went missing in 1986 but resurfaced last year and was donated to the museum.
"Bringing this board to life has been one of the most exciting and unique projects we've been involved with here, and we're thrilled to see it finally available for others to enjoy," said Iain Standen, Bletchley Park Trust chief executive.
"This edition really completes the fantastic story of the board, from it being played on by Turing, to it going missing and then being rediscovered and donated to the museum here. Of course, we're also very proud that Bletchley Park adorns the ‘Mayfair' square."
Bletchley Park had help recreating the board from both William Newman and Winning Moves, a firm that creates new editions of Monopoly.
The special edition contains pictures of Turing, given by the Turing family, which have never been published before.
Turing's face is on all the banknotes, while Huts and Blocks - the buildings which housed the Bletchley Park codebreakers and their machines - take the place of traditional houses and hotels. Bletchley Park was the site of secret British codebreaking activities during WWII.
Throughout 2012, there have been a number of events to mark Turing's 100-year legacy, including the Turing Centenary Conference in Manchester and an exhibition at London's Science Museum, which is displaying many artefacts from Turing's time at Bletchley Park.
In 1936, Alan Turing hypothesised a machine with an infinitely long amount of tape that could write, read and alter symbols. The Turing machine would be a proto-computer capable of computing simple algorithms. The hypothesised device is heralded as a great achievement in computer science. As a memorial to both the man and his machine, two guys from Amsterdam built a Turing machine out of Lego.
In honor of Turing's posthumous 100th birthday Jeroen van den Bos and Davy Landman built a Turing machine using Lego. The simple but brilliant design uses parts from the Mindstorms NXT Lego kit and was built for the upcoming "Turings Erfenis" exposition in Amsterdam.
The machine is built pretty much just like what Turing imagined when he dreamt it up. Except, obviously, he didn't plan to make it out of Lego bricks. Turning's original machine would have worked on tape that was broken down into ones and zeros. It would have been capable of performing simple algorithms, and is considered a forerunner to modern computing.
The Lego Turing Machine is capable of performing simple algorithms, and who knows, could open the boundaries of Lego computing. Check out the complete run down of the machine here.
Turing has been getting a lot of deserved press recently in anticipation to his posthumous 100th birthday on 23 June. Vint Cerf, one of the grandfathers of the internet, pointed out Alan Turing's significance in a recent article for the BBC. A petition to get Turing's image on the £10 note was also introduced earlier this year.
It's great to see more people acknowledging Turing's legacy. The grandfather of modern computing and wartime hero deserves every bit of praise, Lego-related or otherwise.
28 May 2012
The work of Bletchley Park crops up regularly on the pages of V3 as the site's importance in the history of the nation and its impact on the world of IT makes it a location of great interest to those with more than a passing interest in the world of technology.
In the latest piece of good news for Bletchley, V3 readers have shown what a knowledgeable and respectful bunch they are by voting the creation of the Bombe code-breaking devices at the site as the most important IT development in the first half of the 20th century.
In response, chief executive of The Bletchley Park Trust, Iain Standen, said it was fantastic those in the technology industry still understood just how important the IT in use during the war was to Bletchley.
"The fact that the Bombe machine has won this poll is fantastic news and recognition from the IT profession of the vital contribution of the machine to the outcome of the twentieth century," he told V3.
"The brilliant innovators here at Bletchley Park were far ahead of their time and the outcome of the poll underlines the importance of this and all the other technological advances that took place here."
Indeed, the work of the likes of Alan Turing and Dilly Knox are becoming ever more appreciated thanks to ongoing efforts to promote their achievements in helping the Allies turn the tide of the war against the Nazi's.
The Park is currently undergoing an extensive renovation thanks to numerous grants and awards from those aware of its importance, and V3 readers can now count themselves as some of those helping preserve the memory of this vital part of British history.