Christie’s is preparing to auction an impressive collection of Alan Turing’s writings, including his first published paper and several groundbreaking expositions.
This has prompted a fund raising attempt to buy the collection and donate it to Bletchley Park, where Turing worked during the Second World War to decipher encoded German military messages.
Gareth Halfacree, a freelance writer, has launched the campaign on the Just Giving website to raise £500,000 to acquire the books and pamphlets when the auction takes place on 23 November. It is a tall order because, with just four days to go, the fund stands at just over £15,000 and that is mainly due to an anonymous donation of £10,000.
“It’s a big ask, looking for half a million pounds, I know,” he admits on the website, “but if you work for a high-tech company, use a ‘universal computer’, or are in any way connected with modern computing, you owe Turing a debt of gratitude – and this could be a way to help repay that debt.”
Christie’s has said that the hammer is expected to fall somewhere between £300,000 and £500,000 for what is a unique collection of documents given by Turing to his friend Professor Maxwell Newman. Some are signed and dedicated in Turing’s handwriting.
Turing played a key role in the team that cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, known as Station X in the war years. This was a complex series of mechanical machines that encoded military intelligence messages into codes that were thought to be unbreakable. Turing’s team’s success marked a turning point in the conflict.
After the war, in 1945, Turing worked at the National Physical Laboratory on the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) which was designed to be the first stored-program computer and was piloted in 1950.
His name is enshrined in a test he devised for a thesis he wrote on artificial intelligence, Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950), which is included in the Christie’s sale. The Turing Test states that a computer could only be said to “think” if it could fool a human into believing he was communicating with another human and not a machine.
A key article in the sale is On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem (1936), widely hailed as the foundation of modern digital computing. There are also several patents that detail his work in computer memory development filed between 1953-54, shortly before he died from cyanide poisoning in June 1954, aged 41.
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