Turing’s Enduring Importance

The path computing has taken wasn’t inevitable. Even today’s machines rely on a seminal insight from the scientist who cracked Nazi Germany’s codes.

When Alan Turing was born 100 years ago, on June 23, 1912, a computer was not a thing—it was a person. Computers, most of whom were women, were hired to perform repetitive calculations for hours on end. The practice dated back to the 1750s, when Alexis-Claude ­Clairaut recruited two fellow astronomers to help him plot the orbit of Halley’s comet. ­Clairaut’s approach was to slice time into segments and, using Newton’s laws, calculate the changes to the comet’s position as it passed Jupiter and Saturn. The team worked for five months, repeating the process again and again as they slowly plotted the course of the celestial bodies.

 

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