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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

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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