erik lundegaard

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Saturday January 31, 2015

(But Who is Alan Turing?)

The first time Alan Turing's name appeared in The New York Times was 20 years after his death, and his name was just a passing reference in an essay by Guy Davenport over the shameful obscurity of another man, the Canadian critic Hugh Kenner, whom Davenport assumed, or hoped, future generations would admire more than the rabble did in 1973.

Of Kenner's 1968 book of literary and cultural criticism, Davenport writes:

“The Counterfeiters” is a lesson in how to see. Not how to see surfaces but the inside of things and the astounding affinities of things which heretofore seemed to have nothing to do with each other. Vaucanson and Yeats, for instance (but who is Vaucanson?), metaphysical poetry and Babbage (but who is Babbage?), Buster Keaton and Alan Turing (but who is Alan Turing?).

Do first references get any better? A writer mocking critics for not knowing the name of a man the publication he's writing in—and which calls itself “the paper of record”—has never printed

At this point, even to Kenner, Turing was a genius and/or “eccentric” mathematician and no more. The story of Ultra, and the Enigma machine, didn't break until a year later, 1974, with the publication of F.W. Winterbotham's “The Ultra Secret.” That story, which makes up most of the Oscar-nominated “The Imitation Game,” was unknown but to a few. Indeed, in the mid-1960s, in a long essay on computers in The New Yorker, in which Turing is liberally mentioned, we get this puzzled query near the end:

Alan Turing before the war

Turing's story has gained traction as computers became part of everyday life and mainstream culture became more accepting of homosexuality. In the 21st century, when you first hear his background, it seems impossibly dramatic. Wait, a father of the modern computer? And gay? And builder of the machine that broke the code that brought down the Nazis and saved millions of lives and potentially all of us from speaking German—or not speaking at all? And persecuted for his homosexuality after the war? Despite saving all of those lives? Why have I not heard of this guy before?

Derek Jacobi was the first to play Turing, on a BBC-2 TV series called “Micro Live,” in 1983. He was also the second, in 1996, recreating his Tony-nominated performance from the 1987 Broadway play, “Breaking the Code.” Benedict Cumberbatch is the seventh. There will be more. 

Derek Jacobi as Alan Turing

Derek Jacobi as Alan Turing, with Claudius' stutter.

Posted at 09:30 AM on Saturday January 31, 2015 in category Technology