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Alan Turing always ate an apple before going to bed, and would sometimes leave them half-eaten (Source: prill/iStockphoto)
Alan Turing always ate an apple before going to bed, and would sometimes leave them half-eaten (Source: prill/iStockphoto)

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Alan Turing and the apple

Tuesday 26th August 2014 3:14 pm

Last time, I talked about the origin of the original Apple logo — the rainbow-striped silhouette of an apple, with a bite out of it.

This widely spread story goes on to find a link with the genius Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer.

During WW II, Alan Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park outside of London were able to bust the supposedly unbustable German Enigma code. He did this using an early predecessor to our modern computer. Some historians say his work was essential to winning the war.

Turing, in his theoretical design for our modern computer, had realised a fundamental truth.

In the real world, there is a big difference between a tool, and the stuff that the tool acts upon. For example, in carpentry, a metal saw (a tool) is quite different from the timber (which is processed by the saw).

Not so in the virtual world, and Turing realised this. He proved that there is no fundamental difference between ‘data’ and the ‘instructions’ that processes the data. (Today, we label these ‘instructions’ as ‘programs’ or ‘applications’). This is why you and I accept that our computers easily handle both programs and data as bunches of 1s and 0s.

But Turing was the first person to prove mathematically that there was no essential difference between data and applications. This deep and fundamental understanding sped up the introduction of computers by decades.

It has been said that Turing’s work in busting the Enigma code shortened the Second World War by two years. But for various reasons, the work of Turing and his colleagues was kept secret by the British until 1974.

In January 1952, Alan Turing’s house got robbed. He told the police that he suspected the robber to be a friend of his boyfriend. At that time, homosexuality was a criminal offence in the United Kingdom.

Alan Turing pleaded guilty and was given the choice of either jail imprisonment, or probation with chemical castration — that is, injections of female hormones.

Alan Turing chose the punishment of the feminising hormones, became sexually impotent, and grew breasts. He was labeled a security risk, and no longer had access to the people and projects he loved.

As the story goes, on 7 June, 1954, he committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide. Indeed, a half-eaten apple was found in his apartment.

What is the significance of the half-eaten apple?

It turns out that Turing’s favourite movie was Snow White. You know the plot — the princess falls into a deep sleep after eating the poisoned apple, and is awakened by the kiss of the prince.

That’s supposedly why Turing committed suicide with a poisoned apple.

So is that the reason why, some two decades later, to honour Alan Turing, the Apple company designed their logo to have a missing bite?

And was it because he was a homosexual, and as a salute to Gay Pride, that the Apple logo from 1976 to 1999 also incorporated a horizontal band of rainbow colours?

No. Stephen Fry asked Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple, whether this urban myth was true. Steve Jobs replied, “God, we wish it were.”

But, like all successful myths, it has elements of truth in it.

Yes, at the inquest the coroner determined that Alan Turing did die from cyanide poisoning. Yes, there was an apple with a bite taken out of it in his apartment.

But first, the coroner did not analyse the apple to see if it contained cyanide. So we’ll never know that detail.

Secondly, there is much circumstantial evidence suggesting it was not a suicide, but an accident. Alan Turing had set up an apparatus to electroplate spoons with gold in his tiny spare room. He was using potassium cyanide to dissolve the gold, and may well have accidentally inhaled cyanide fumes. He always ate an apple before going to bed, and would sometimes leave them half-eaten.

Despite the stress of his legal setbacks, and the side-effects of the female hormones, Turing was not depressed and indeed was in good humour. In fact, he had written down a list of jobs to complete at work after the holiday weekend.

Most of us with computers have no idea that Alan Turing was their father. But we all make our own personal tribute to this genius, every time we press the screen of our smartphone to ring, or ‘Turing’, somebody (get it?) …

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This blog first appeared on Dr Karl's Great Moments in Science

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