Alan Turing: a short biography by Andrew Hodges

This short on-line biography of Alan Turing is based on the entry I wrote for the British Dictionary of National Biography in 1995. The eight parts correspond roughly to the eight sections of my full biography Alan Turing: the enigma.

There are no hyperlinks in the text. For links and for more images, go to the corresponding page of the Alan Turing Internet Scrapbook.

Part 1 — The Origins of Alan Turing

Alan Mathison Turing was born on 23 June 1912, the second and last child (after his brother John) of Julius Mathison and Ethel Sara Turing. The unusual name of Turing placed him in a distinctive family tree of English gentry, far from rich but determinedly upper-middle-class in the peculiar sense of the English class system. His father Julius had entered the Indian Civil Service, serving in the Madras Presidency, and had there met and married Ethel Sara Stoney. She was the daughter of the chief engineer of the Madras railways, who came from an Anglo-Irish family of somewhat similar social status. Although conceived in British India, most likely in the town of Chatrapur, Alan Turing was born in a nursing home in Paddington, London.
Alan Turing's father
In four inadequate words Alan Turing appears now as the founder of computer science, the originator of the dominant technology of the late twentieth century, but these words were not spoken in his own lifetime, and he may yet be seen in a different light in the future. They are also words very remote from the circumstances of his birth and infancy.

The name of Turing was best known for the work of Julius' brother H. D. Turing on fly fishing, and had no connection with the scientific or academic worlds. The name of Stoney however was notable for a remote relative, the Irish physicist George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911), today best known for his identification of the natural units of physical quantities. Possibly the engineering base of his mother's family, with its respect for applied science, had some influence, but if so it was subordinated to the demands of class, church and Empire. Certainly the elder brother John F. Turing, who became a London solicitor, showed no sign of it. Alan Turing's story was not one of family or tradition but of an isolated and autonomous mind.

Alan Turing shared with his brother a childhood rigidly determined by the demands of class and the exile in India of his parents. Until his father's retirement from India in 1926, Alan Turing and his elder brother John were fostered in various English homes where nothing encouraged expression, originality, or discovery. Science for him was an extra-curricular passion, first shown in primitive chemistry experiments. But he was given, and read, later commenting on its seminal influence, a popular book called Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know.

Alan Turing with his mother
His boyhood scientific interests were a trial to his mother whose perpetual terror was that he would not be acceptable to the English Public School. At twelve he expressed his conscious fascination with using 'the thing that is commonest in nature and with the least waste of energy,' presentiment of a life seeking freshly minted answers to fundamental questions. Despite this, he was successfully entered for Sherborne School. The headmaster soon reported: "If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a Public School." The assessment of his establishment was almost correct.

Continue the short biography

For links and more pictures go to the corresponding
Alan Turing Internet Scrapbook page.

© Andrew Hodges 1995












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