Track Stats - Alan Turing
In isolation and autonomy: the marathon ambition of a computer genius, Alan Turing
Alan Turing was a very capable marathon runner of the 1940s. Profiled By I.E.G. Green. Published in “Track Stats” September 2009
Which British athlete has made the greatest contribution to society in the course of his life’s work ? It’s an interesting subject for debate, and there are some notable candidates who spring to mind: Lord Noel-Baker, Olympic 1500 metres silver-medallist in 1920, later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; Eric Liddell, the 1924 400 metres champion, and a missionary who died for his beliefs; Lord Burghley, the 400 metres hurdles champion in 1928, who became a leading figure in the Olympic movement. Others have been surgeons, soldiers, politicians of great repute. Who of them, though, has left a legacy of Worldwide significance to match that of Alan Turing ?
Turing has been described as “the founder of computer science, the originator of the dominant technology of the late 20th Century” and also as “a fine athlete of almost Olympic standard”. The first of these statements is unquestionably justified; the second, it has to be said, is at best a matter of opinion. Turing was the author of a paper which inspired the creation of the programmable computer, and he produced the first machine and invented the concept of programming. He also played a major role in the secret wartime work which led to the breaking of Germany’s Enigma military code system. As a long-distance runner, he had a brief and noteworthy career which might have led to greater things but fell short of the higher levels. His life was tumultuous and ultimately tragic as he died at the age of 42 after taking a bite of an apple soaked in potassium cyanide.
Alan Mathison Turing was born in Paddington on 23 June 1912, the younger of two brothers. His father, Julius Turing, was a tax officer in the Indian Civil Service, and he and his wife returned to India, leaving one-year-old Alan and his brother in the care of friends. The two boys spent their childhood in a series of foster homes until their father retired from work and the parents returned home to England in 1926. Alan Turing had shown early signs of precocity – even budding genius – by teaching himself to read in three weeks, and he was studying the works of Albert Einstein at the age of 12, though throughout his school life he was never to come to terms with the discipline of classroom learning and this was reflected in his poor examination results.
He was sent to the public school, Sherborne, and immediately attracted widespread attention on his first day by riding his bicycle 60 miles to school because all public transport had been halted by the General Strike. He was to demonstrate exceptional physical ability throughout his earlier life, as in later years it was said by his biographer, Andrew Hodges, that Turing “would amaze his colleagues by running to scientific meetings, beating the travellers by public transport”. However, it was not to be until after World War II that he took up serious competitive athletics.
From Sherborne he had gone up to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1931 and his exceptional ability as a mathematician led to him being made a Fellow of the college in 1935. He spent some time at Princeton in 1937-38, earning his Ph.D there, and it is interesting to speculate that because of his interest in running he might have been among the spectators at a Princeton “Mile of the Century” on 19 June 1937 when the leading American middle-distance men staged a race which surely would have won his admiration – Archie San Romani 4:07.2, Don Lash 4:07.2, Glenn Cunningham 4:07.4, beating the Olympic 1500 metres champion of 1932, Lugi Beccali, of Italy.
Turing returned to Cambridge, and then with the advent of war he went to the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre to join an eccentric group of gifted academics who had been described as “Colonel Ridley’s shooting party” to keep their true identity secret from local residents. Almost 70 years later the names of Bletchley Park and of Turing were revived in print in support of a public campaign to restore the decaying buildings, and 97 academics and scientists signed a letter to “The Independent” newspaper in July of 2008 calling for the site to become a centre of national computing. Writing in “The Independent”, Ben Macintyre made particular reference to Turing after describing one of his colleagues who worked in his pyjamas and smoked a large pipe into which by mistake he sometimes attempted to stuff his lunchtime sandwiches: “Still more remarkable was Alan Turing, the mathematician and logician who developed the electro-magnetic bombe used to decipher Enigma messages. Shabbily dressed, notoriously absent-minded, Turing was a homosexual, a marathon runner, a loner and a genius. He cycled round in a gas mask because of his allergies and chained his tea-cup to a radiator to deter thieves”.
From November 1942 to March 1943 Turing was in the USA on a top-level liaison mission concerned with breaking the German code system, and in the latter year he contributed to the construction of the “Colossus”, which was the first large-scale electronic calculator but had the capacity for only one kind of code-breaking process and was not a computer in the modern sense Even so, Alan Stripp, one of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, who died earlier this year at the age of 84, once recalled that the German Enigma ciphering machine had 159 million million million possible combinations, which Colossus helped to sort through. What was much more important was that in 1945 Turing emerged with the first detailed design for an electronic computer in the full modern meaning of the term, known as the ACE (automatic computing engine), and from then until 1948 he worked at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington on development of the ACE. It was while working at Teddington that he was invited to join the nearby Walton Athletic Club.
The start of a distance-running career in 1946
In May of 1948 he became deputy director of the computing laboratory at Manchester University where a working computer was set up that same year, and he bought a house in Wilmslow, in Cheshire. His homosexuality was to lead to his prosecution by the police in 1952, and though he subsequently made no attempt to hide his inclinations, and in conversation made light of his trial and his sentencing to hormone treatment, it is believed that his experiences led to his committing suicide at his home on 7 June 1954.
So far as his athletics career is concerned, the first mention of his name in the monthly magazine, “Athletics” (which was to become “Athletics Weekly” in later years), was in August 1946 when he won the Walton AC’s three miles track title in 15:37.8. This hardly compared in any way with the record-breaking time of 13:53.2 which had been set by Sydney Wooderson a month before at the AAA Championships, but the 20th fastest time by a Briton that year was 15:17.0 and so Turing’s performance as an unlikely 34-year-old novice was one to be remarked upon. He was actually worth better, as was demonstrated on 31 August, at a meeting at Motspur Park organised by Blackheath Harriers, where he won a three-mile handicap race. With a start of 360 yards, he beat by inches a useful runner named Monty Hillier, of Oxford City AC (off 180 yards), in a time of 14:20.6, which was equivalent to around 15:20 for the full distance.
This was followed by a series of commendable cross-country runs for his club, as follows: 26 October, 3rd v Thames Valley Harriers and Woodford Green AC at Cranford, only six seconds behind Alec Olney (TVH), who was to become an Olympic 5000 metres runner two years later. 2 November, 2nd v Epsom & Ewell Harriers, the Guards Depot and Wigmore Harriers, 24 seconds behind J.J. Andrews (Wigmore Harriers). 9 November, 17th of 209 starters, South of the Thames inter-team race at Nonsuch Park, Cheam, and first scorer for his club, 1min 2sec behind Bill Lucas (Belgrave Harriers), also an Olympic 5000 metres runner in 1948. 21 December, 7th v Surrey AC at Kingston, 30 seconds behind Stan Belton (Southern cross-country champion in 1936) and Geoff Iden (to be an Olympic marathon runner in 1952), both of Surrey AC.
Clearly, Turing was already of some public repute as a result of his computing research because “Athletics” magazine saw fit to publish a paragraph in one of their issues that year drawing attention to the fact that the Walton AC member was the same Dr Turing who was “largely responsible for the so called Electronic Brain Machine”. During 1947 he ventured into longer distances. In March he was 69th in a snowbound National cross-country championships at Apsley, in Buckinghamshire. In April he was 4th in a 10 miles road race promoted by his club in a time of 54:43 behind an RAF officer and prewar British 5000 metres international, Peter Dainty, who won in 52:10 (and who has recently died at the age of 94), and almost a minute ahead of Stan Jones, of Polytechnic Harriers, who was to gain Olympic marathon selection the next year. In May Turing was 3rd in the Kent 20 miles road race at Chislehurst in 2:06:18, though more than four minutes behind the winner, Ron Manley, of Woodford Green AC.
All of this activity was presumably – and, no doubt, mathematically and logically – designed by Turing as preparation for his marathon debut, which was on 12 July in Rugby at a race promoted by the British Thomson Houston electrical engineering company. There he was a somewhat isolated 4th in 3:01:23 as the future Olympic silver-medallist, Tommy Richards, of South London Harriers, won in 2:43:03 from Manley (2:50:47) and Harry Dennis, of Thames Valley Harriers (2:55:10). Having retained his Walton AC three miles track title on 12 August in 15:51.8, Turing took part in the AAA marathon a fortnight later at Loughborough and improved enormously to a time of 2:46:03 for 5th place. Again, he ended the race on his own. Jack Holden, of Tipton Harriers, who would also run in the Olympic marathon a year later, won in 2:33:20.2 from Richards (2:36:07) and the Scotsmen, Donald McNab Robertson (2:37:45.6) and J. Emmett Farrell (2:39:46.4). Behind Turing in 6th and 7th places were two wartime Polytechnic marathon winners, Les Griffiths and Gerry Humphreys, but unfortunately the report in “Athletics” magazine was very brief and gave no details.
Turing was 7th in the South of the Thames inter-team cross-country event in November at Dartford, 40 seconds behind the National champion, Bertie Robertson, of Reading AC, and at the year’s end he was ranked in 9th place on his competitive record among Britain’s marathon runners by the AAA and British Amateur Athletic Board team manager, Jack Crump, in his annual compilation. The list of Olympic “possibles” announced by the BAAB included only six for the marathon – Cecil Ballard (Surrey AC), Farrell, John Henning (Duncairn Nomads), Holden, Richards and McNab Robertson. Ballard had won the Poly marathon and Henning was the Northern Ireland and All-Ireland champion.
In April of 1948 Turing finished almost nine minutes down on the winner of the Wigmore 15 miles road race, and his internet biography notes with perhaps no more than a degree of justification that “only injury prevented his serious consideration for the British team in the 1948 Olympic Games”. In fact, the selection process was simply based on the result of the combined AAA/Polytechnic race on 19 June in which Turing did not run and which was won by Holden in 2:36:44.6 from Richards (2:38:03) and Stan Jones (2:40:49).
A copy of the programme for the 1948 Poly shows that Turing was entered, and so he may well have had some Olympic aspirations at least until his untimely injury. This leaves us only with the inevitable conjecture that although his best time was more than five minutes slower than was good enough to win an Olympic place he might conceivably have made further significant improvement in only his second year of marathon-running had he been fully fit. His running action was apparently very strained and cumbersome, and this may have caused his problems.
He continued competing until 1950 when a leg injury finally ended his career. What might this singular man, described by his biographer, Andrew Hodges, as having “an isolated and autonomous mind”, have achieved as a runner, given the opportunity ? After all, there are few physical activities more demanding of isolation and autonomy than running an Olympic marathon.
English Heritage have awarded the Bletchley Park centre £300,000 for roof repairs and pledged a further £100,000 a year for three years if this could be matched by other organisations. Appeals to the National Lottery and to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation failed, but fund-raising by Milton Keynes Council among local residents raised a further £300,000, and so Bletchley Park has been saved as the National Museum of Computing. Still more money is needed for restoration work and details can be found on the internet at www.savingbletchleypark.org.
Author’s footnote: Andrew Hodges’s biography, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”, is published by Vintage, Random House, London. My thanks to Mr Hodges for providing valuable amendments to the draft of this article. There is also an extensive Turing website at www.turing.org.uk.