James Watt, whose steam engines powered the Industrial Revolution, and his business partner Matthew Boulton are currently featuring on the 50 notes from the Bank of England. However, on July 15th, the bank announced that Alan Turing, the man who built Colossus, the first programmable, electronic, digital computer in the world and who also developed much of the computer science theory, especially the idea of algorithms, will instead be depicted from 2021 fifties. During the Second World War, Colossus was used to break German codes, significantly shortening hostilities. However, that earned Turing scant recognition, partially because of the secrecy of the project and partially because of his illicit activities in Britain, which were illegal back then. It’s debatable what has altered the world more, steam engines or computers. But Watt died in his 80s, rich and lauded by his fellows. Turing died at the age of 41, possibly self-inflicted, of cyanide poisoning.
The Bank recognized Turing’s crucial position in early computer development, first at the National Physical Laboratory and then at Manchester University.
“He set the foundations for work on artificial intelligence by considering the question of whether machines could think,” the Bank said. “Turing was found to participate in activities deem illegal at that time and was posthumously pardoned by the Queen, having been convicted of gross indecency for his relationship with a man. His legacy continues to have an impact on both science and society today.”
The veteran gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, said the £ 50 note announcement was “a much-deserved accolade for one of the 20th century’s biggest minds.” Turing’s face will appear on the new £ 50 polymer note when it comes into circulation in 2021, following a process of public consultation to honour an eminent British scientist.
The Bank said a total of 227,299 nominations had been obtained, covering 989 eligible characters. These have been reduced to a shortlist of 12, with Carney making the final decision.
Mary Anning, Paul Dirac, Rosalind Franklin, William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, Dorothy Hodgkin, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, Stephen Hawking, James Clerk Maxwell, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Sanger, and Alan Turing were the shortlisted characters or pairs of protagonists.
Speaking at the launch, Carney said it was “as inclusive as possible” to select fresh notes.MPs and campaigners had advised, however, that selecting a white scientist would risk sending a “harmful signal that ethnic minorities are invisible,” while the Bank’s campaign team, Banknotes of Color, said on Monday that its 150,000-strong petition to have an ethnic minority on a banknote was “not taken seriously.”
The note was revealed at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, a brief walk from the University building in Manchester where Turing helped to create programming for Ferranti Mark 1, the world’s first commercially accessible electronic computer.
A fresh museum exhibition features several artifacts related to the pioneering scientist, including an initial Enigma cipher device used in the Second World War, electronic parts for a Ferranti Mark 1 computer, and a 1951 Manchester University advertising brochure with a computer-leaning Turing photograph.
John Leech, Manchester Withington’s former Liberal Democrat MP who helped lead the Turing Law campaign, said he was “very emotional” to see the new £50 note officially unveiled and that it was “a huge acknowledgement of his mistreatment and an unprecedented contribution to society.”
Leech said: “The difference Alan Turing made to society is almost impossible to put into words, but perhaps the most poignant instance is that his job is estimated to have reduced the conflict by four years and saved up to 21 million lives.
“And yet the way he was treated afterwards remains a national embarrassment and an example of society at its absolute worst.”
While Turing would certainly have celebrated the technological advances that move Britain towards a “cashless” society – more than half of transactions are now on contactless cards, compared to less than 30% when Carney became governor in 2013 – Carney insisted that physical notes would remain in circulation “for a very long time.”
Article originally featured by The Economist.