When I was a 14-year-old kid, years before personal computers came to be, I wired up logic boards by gluing Molex connectors on plywood and making AND, OR and XOR gates using simple wires. My inputs were toggle switches, my outputs were mini light bulbs, 8 or 16 of them in a row to show binary numbers, and the wiring was “designed” to implement the multiplication tables. I powered the whole thing using the transformer of my electric train set. I hadn’t figured out how to make memory work that way, but I had static calculating functionality. After a while, it got too tedious to actually wire my designs up. I knew I could do it, but I didn’t need to. I simply drew my designs on yellow pads and I knew I had the design of a functioning calculator, whether it ever lit up or not didn’t matter.
I had read about Alan Turing then. I knew he was this mathematical genius who also came up with the “Turning Test,” a method to test whether a computer was actually intelligent. Later as I became a “real” computer scientist I got to actually play with real boards, real computers and real machines.
When I saw Turing’s machine designed to break the Nazi Enigma encryption mechanism in the movie Imitation Game, I felt right at home; I almost experienced a throwback to my youth.
Imitation Game tells the story of the life of Alan Turing and it fills in all the blanks about him that I didn’t know. I knew the surface of his work, but I had no idea about the details, the complex character that he was, and the challenges he faced by being who he was. In his own quirky way, without ever getting credit for it, he apparently was responsible more than any general or head of state for shortening World War II by several years, as historians estimate.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turning with riveting intensity. We can feel his anxiety, his discomfort with people in social situation, and his awkwardness toward women. The battle to conquer the code and the race against death through daily destruction by the Nazis of English cities and ships, in the face of impossible odds, paces the movie along.
I learned much about Enigma and what it meant in the war, I saw the dawn of the computer age, and I experienced the life of one of the early pioneers of digital machines in living colors.