Codebreaker at the Science Museum provides fitting tribute to genius of Alan Turing

By Dulcie Lee | 01 October 2013

Exhibition review: Codebreaker, Science Museum, London, until October 21 2013

a photo of a large old computer and patch board
The Pilot ACE Computer© Science and Society Picture Library, Science Museum
During the Second World War, Britain’s sharpest minds gathered in the Buckinghamshire countryside to crack German ciphers and dig out enemy secrets.

Today the work of the men and women at Bletchley Park has become synonymous with the Allied defeat of the Axis powers. But for many years after the war, documents and machines were destroyed and the discoveries and lives of the Bletchley Park codebreakers remained classified.

More than 70 years later, some of Britain’s best-kept wartime secrets are being publicly displayed at the Science Museum.

Although more than the story of a lone genius, this biographical exhibition, which comes to the end of its year-long run later this month, focuses on the life and legacy of a man known by the Bletchley workforce as "the Prof", also celebrating 100 years since the mathematician, philosopher, computer scientist and Bletchley codebreaker, Alan Turing, was born.

Nestled in the corner of the ground floor, Codebreaker spans several small rooms in an area so dimly lit it conjures the perfect atmosphere of secret government codebreaking.

Many of the pieces seem to create a graveyard of astonishingly intimate and often heartrending artefacts from Turing’s life.

One such piece relates to a man named Christopher Morcombe, with whom the future coderbreaker became infatuated. Morcombe tragically died of tuberculosis aged 18 in 1930.

Donated by the Morcombe family, a poignant letter written by Turing to Morcombe’s mother reads: “I know I must put as much energy if not as much interest into my work as if he were alive, because that is what he would like me to do.”

a black and white photo of Alan Turing in jacket shirt and tie
Alan Turing.© NPL Archive, Science Museum
The legacy of this single-minded energy are the machines which have survived the routine destruction of used military intelligence. They include the Pilot ACE computer, the fastest computer in the world at the time and a surviving embodiment of Turing’s ideas surrounding a universal programmable machine.

“It’s a way in to see how he thought,” explains David Rooney, the Curator of Time, Navigation and Transport at the museum.

“I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say that it is Alan Turing’s mind made into metal with glass valves.”

Thankfully, the museum doesn’t ignore Turing’s immense and sometimes understated contribution to other areas of science and philosophy, including his pioneering papers on morphogenesis (the biology of organisms’ shapes).

Turing visited the Science Museum in 1951 and visitors can watch the very same “cybernetic tortoises” seen by the man himself 62 years ago.

Much of the exhibition space is devoted to Turing’s work on the Enigma machine at Bletchley, for which he is undoubtedly best known. It includes, of course, examples of the device itself.

The three machines track different stages of the cipher’s evolution, and one of those on display, donated by GCHQ in 1980 following long negotiations, is thought to be the first ever Enigma that was shown to the public.

The contribution made by other staff at Bletchley Park is also commemorated, with a memorable interview featuring an elderly lady who playfully tells the story of night patrols at Bletchley during the blackout, and accidentally marching into the site’s pond.

But such rose-tinted memories are overshadowed by the tragic end to Turing's life after his homosexuality conviction, subsequent hormone therapy and apparent suicide.

The relics of this sad demise include a small glass bottle of hormone replacement pills, which sits alongside his post-mortem report, backlit like an X-ray.

The phrase "troubled genius" may be lazy and clichéd, but it is undeniable that Turing, whose life ended age 41, left a legacy which is part of the life of everyone who visits this exhibition.

The Science Museum has successfully turned complex, impenetrable maths into a poignant biography of a man who began a chapter of history we are still yet to finish.

More pictures:

a photo of a wooden cased enigma machine
Four rotor Enigma cypher machine.© Science and Society Picture Library, Science Museum
a photo of a woman using a pilot ACE computer
Pilot Ace Computer in action.© Science and Society Picture Library, Science Museum
What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Follow Dulcie Lee on Twitter @Dulcie_Lee.
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