THE CHHATRAPUR CONNECTION
As someone once observed, in Silicon Valley, if you throw a stone you’ll hit an Indian— plus you’ll probably get a second one on the ricochet. India’s contribution to the development of IT industry is well known. But what is not so well known is the fact that the man who has been called ‘ the father of the computer’, Alan Turing, had a strong Indian connection himself.
Turing— who was born exactly 100 years ago, in 1912— is best known for the key role he played in cracking the ‘ unbreakable’ German Enigma codes in World War II, and thereby helping to win the War. But he was also one of the great pioneers of computer science. As Time magazine put it, when it named Turing as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, “everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine”. It all goes back to Turing’s seminal paper ‘ On Computable Numbers’, written in 1936, when he was only 24. That led directly to the Colossus computer, built to break the Enigma code. And, arguably, every device that has ever come out since then, whether from IBM, Apple, BlackBerry or Raspberry Pi, is just another expression of that original idea ( although credit for Turing’s work often goes to John von Neumann, instead).
Turing’s father, Julius Turing, was an ICS officer in the Madras presidency. He spoke fluent Tamil and Telugu and was posted in a series of remote places like Parvatipuram, Anantapur, Srikakulam and Kurnool, before being promoted, in 1921, to secretary in charge of agriculture and commerce. Even before him, various Turings had lived in India, since the 1700s, including Major John Turing, who took part in the fateful Siege of Srirangapatna.
But Turing’s Indian connection was from both sides. His mother, Sarah Stoney, was a railway girl, her father having been chief engineer of the Madras & South Mahratta Railway— a man credited for building the Tungabhadra Bridge, as well as inventing ‘ Stoney’s Patent Silent Punkah- wheel’, an innovative non- creaking punkah designed to ensure better sleep. Thus Sarah Stoney was born in Podanur, and grew up in a house in Coonoor ( which has, by freak coincidence, now been bought by Nandan Nilekani, co- founder of Infosys— although he had no inkling about the Turing connection until I told him).
Despite this Indian background, Turing himself was born in England ( though his biographers tell us he was conceived in Chhatrapur, Odisha, where his father was posted). His mother travelled back to England for the baby’s birth, as was customary at the time, to avoid the social stigma against the “country- born”. But when she returned to India, she left the baby with guardians in Sussex. At age 6, the young Turing was to return to India with his parents, but for health reasons he was kept back. He later went on to public school, Cambridge and Princeton’s famed Institute of Advanced Study. And then the War broke out and he was recruited for the code- breakers at Bletchley Park.
After the War, Turing worked on the development of some of the world’s first functioning computers, as well as on the concept of artificial intelligence ( dreaming of teaching his computers to appreciate the taste of strawberries and cream). But his life was a tragic one, and he was treated barbarically by the British system because of his homosexuality, which was illegal at the time. In 1952, he was arrested for “gross indecency”, and the court gave him two choices: Go to prison, or submit to being castrated, chemically. He chose the latter. Two years later, aged 42, Turing committed suicide, in one of the most poignant, romantic acts of suicide I have come across: Obsessed by Walt Disney’s Snow White, he decided, like the princess, to bite into a poisoned apple. One night, he dipped an apple in cyanide, bit into it, and died, leaving the half- eaten apple by his bedside. In fact, there’s an urban legend that the Apple computer logo— with the single bite taken out of it— is a cryptic tribute to Alan Turing. But when Steve Jobs was asked if it was true, he replied, “No. But I really wish it was.”
What a difference a couple of generations makes. In today’s world, the 24- year- old Turing would have, of course, been pursued by VCs, set up a tech company, launched an IPO, had a net worth of $ 14.9 billion, and become a gay icon in the bargain. Instead, he dies anonymous, poor, impotent and anguished. As his father might have told him in Tamil, “Idhu daan vazhkai, magane ( such is life, my son).”
Anvar Alikhan is an advertising professional and social commentator