Tuesday 2nd February 3:58 pm
Evolution of the universal machine
Tuesday 19th August 2014 3:07 pm
Big corporations are becoming, for better or for worse, an increasingly more powerful force in today’s world.
Most of the bigger companies are recognised by their logo alone — the stark red emblem of the international humanitarian organisation Red Cross, or the simple fruit logo of the technology gargantuan known as Apple.
Rumours circulate about why the original Apple logo was a rainbow-striped apple — and why it had a bite out of it.
The story most commonly told comes from the Second World War, and involves a genius. His work, according to both British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and supreme allied commander Dwight D Eisenhower, enabled the allies to win World War II.
So first, why the bite out of the Apple logo? Is it a play on words because, in computer terms, a ‘byte’ is a unit of data?
Is it related to the apple of knowledge in the Garden of Eden with the two naked people and the talking snake? Is it related to Isaac Newton supposedly being hit on the head by a falling apple, and so coming up with the theory of gravity?
No, none of those. The story is that the rainbow Apple logo had a bite out of it because of Alan Turing.
Turing was born in 1912 and was in every sense a true genius. By the age of 16 he had not only read and understood Albert Einstein’s writings on relativity, but had also taken it further in questioning Isaac Newton’s laws of motion.
Specifically relevant to our story, Alan Turing also invented the concept of a ‘universal machine’. According to Turing, this theoretical machine should be able to get a number (say, off a tape) and then either add or subtract it to another number (somewhere else on that same tape), and then invert or turn upside-down any of these numbers or results, and lastly, store the final result — again on this tape. If it could do that, you would have Turing’s beloved universal machine.
I first really understood the concept of Alan Turing’s universal machine when my family and I walked 790 kilometres across Spain on the El Camino. It took us about a month. I then realised that my smartphone, which fitted in my pocket, was Alan Turing’s universal machine.
Yep, Turing’s universal machine is today’s computer. He invented the computer.
Our walk was way back in 2009, in those heady days when the smartphone was still a new concept. As I expected, my smartphone was indeed a phone. It was also a camera, and a GPS device that showed me maps of where we were walking — as well as a talking Spanish-English dictionary. Being smart, it gave me access to email and the web. But it was also my diary and notebook, calendar and calculator, currency converter and clock, and a map of the night sky and a compass. It also gave me access to daily weather forecasts, newspapers anywhere in the world, and was also a voice recorder. Truly, it was the universal machine.
The modern computer had its origin before the Second World War, when Turing was working part time with the British Government Code And Cipher School. The Second World War broke out in 1939, and in a frighteningly short time, mainland Western Europe had been conquered by the Nazis.
The United Kingdom was to some degree protected from invasion by the English Channel. From the point of view of the United States, the United Kingdom was an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” — in other words a future offshore base from which mainland Europe could be liberated.
The USA was sending supplies across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom via high-speed sea convoys. The slow Nazi submarines or U-boats repeatedly and consistently sank the fast convoys — hundreds of thousands of tonnes of shipping each month. How? Because the Nazi high command guided the slow U-boats to where the fast convoys would be — via coded radio messages. These messages were encoded by series of German encryption machines called Enigma.
By late 1941, Turing and his team at Bletchley Park had designed and built a few primitive electro-mechanical de-encryption machines called Bombes. Each Bombe was about two metres high, two metres wide, 60 centimetres deep, weighed a tonne — and could de-encrypt three Enigma codes at the same time.
They managed to reduce the shipping losses of the high-speed convoys to less than 100,000 tonnes per month. The Bombes were a step on the path to the modern computer — and to why the original rainbow-striped Apple logo had a piece missing. So I’ll take a bite out that story, next time …
This blog first appeared on Dr Karl's Great Moments in Science
© 2017 Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd