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Rebuild of Early Computer

What a difference a generation makes! From one age to the next, and it has been starkly illustrated in the way the nation honours the founding fathers and mothers of inventions.

Father of the Internet

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, knighted in 2004, generally acknowledged as the father of the internet, enjoys high status, awards, peer and public recognition of his immensely important work. And the fact that he gave it to the world, free.

His own website describes him as a graduate of Oxford University, who invented the World Wide Web, an internet-based hypermedia initiative for global information sharing while at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, in 1989. He wrote the first web client and server in 1990. His specifications of URIs, HTTP and HTML were refined as Web technology spread.

The site gives details: ‘based on the earlier “Enquire” work, it was designed to allow people to work together by combining their knowledge in a web of hypertext documents. He wrote the first World Wide Web server, “httpd”, and the first client, “WorldWideWeb” a what-you-see-is-what-you-get hypertext browser/editor which ran in the NeXTStep environment. This work was started in October 1990, and the program “WorldWideWeb” first made available within CERN in December, and on the Internet at large in the summer of 1991’.

Father of Computer Science

By contrast and generations earlier, Alan Turing, the wartime code breaker, logician and mathematician widely regarded as the father of artificial intelligence, was convicted of gross indecency (he was homosexual) in 1952, volunteered for chemical castration (female hormone injections) but committed suicide by potassium cyanide two years later.

It was his idea to create a machine to turn thought processes into numbers. That was a key turning point in computers evolving.

He devised the Turing Machine, the first digital computer program. His unique thought was to build something that would read a series of ones and zeros from a tape, in order to reveal the steps necessary to solve a problem or task.

During the war his experiments helped Britain win by deciphering encrypted German communications with Colossus, a way of cracking Germany’s Enigma constantly changing codes. This was the first step towards a digital computer.

Turing developed computer science after the war by making the blueprint for the first stored-program computer at the National Physical Laboratory, and devised the Automatic Computing Engine. He wrote a study paper called Intelligent Machines (1969); this was the first time the concept of artificial intelligence had been raised.

This was science overlapping with philosophy, the relationship between computers and nature. He believed that machines would come that could ‘mimic the processes of the human brain’. He knew that many people would struggle with the notion of machines as intelligent as they are.

He considered cameras and microphones to be just like parts of the human body and devised the Turing Test, which has become a standard measure in the artificial intelligence community.

Better Late Than Never

Now, one hundred years since his birth, Turing is set to be honoured for his achievements more than a scandal, as the Royal Mail is including him in a list of 10 Britons of Distinction, to be featured in new set of postage stamps this month.

This will be the culmination of a rehabilitation that began in 2009 when an online petition led to the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying that ‘the country owed Turing a huge debt’.

That is unquestionably true. His legacy is immeasurable, and without it, the innovations of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and every entrepreneuring scientist since would not have happened.

A postage stamp is the least we can do, surely?


Photo: Tom Yates