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Alan Turing Archives Saved

February 26, 2011

The National Heritage Memorial Fund has saved an archive of WWII papers from the United Kingdom’s most famous code-breaker, Alan Turing, in an 11th-hour bid that kept the collection of scientific papers from going to a private buyer.

Turing, one of the founding fathers of modern computing and a key figure in breaking the German Enigma code, will now have his work kept in its “spiritual home,” Bletchley Park, which was the center of Britain’s top secret code-breaking effort during the war.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund announced Friday that it had donated more than $320,000 to a campaign to stop Turing’s notes and scientific papers from going abroad. The papers will now go to Bletchley Park Museum in London thanks to the generous donation.

Jenny Abramsky, the fund’s chairwoman, said the collection would be a permanent memorial to “a true war hero.”

“The National Heritage Memorial Fund was set up in memory of those who have given their lives for the UK and this grant will now ensure that this extremely rare collection of his work stands as a permanent memorial to the man and to all those who paid the ultimate price in service to this nation,” Abramsky told The Guardian, Britain’s national daily newspaper.

The documents were put up for auction by Christie’s in November but did not sell. An online campaign to keep them in Britain raised more than $45,000 from the public, and Internet search company Google donated $100,000. The money raised still fell short by about $320,000; that’s where the National Heritage Memorial Fund stepped in.

Turing worked at Bletchley Park and helped crack the Nazi Germany’s secret codes by creating the “Turing bombe,” a forerunner of modern computers, to help reveal the settings for the Nazi Enigma machine.

Turing also pioneered work in artificial intelligence, developing the “Turing Test” to measure whether a machine can think. One of the most prestigious honors in computing, the Turing Prize, is named in honor of him.

But Turing was not always considered a national treasure. He was prosecuted for homosexuality, stripped of his security clearance and forcibly treated with female hormones. He committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41.

In 2009, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a public apology on behalf of the government’s “inhumane” treatment of Turing.

The papers in Turing’s collection belonged to his friend and fellow code-breaker Max Newman and include 15 of the 18 original scientific papers Turing published in his short lifetime — most notably “On Computable Numbers,” a groundbreaking work on the history of computing.

IT journalist, Gareth Halfacree, who headed the online campaign to save the documents, said: “There are handwritten notes by Turing on them and one of them has the signature of his mother on it.”

“These papers are extremely significant,” Halfacree told BBC News.

He also told The Guardian back in November that those looking to bid on and buy the notes and papers could have been computer tech companies from Silicon Valley. “It’s the sort of thing they’d like to have on their wall. I just hope whoever buys it donates the papers to Bletchley Park.”

Peter Barron, Google’s director of external relations, said Thursday that the company was “delighted” that Turing’s work would be returned to Bletchley Park. “Turing is a hero to many of us at Google for his pioneering work on algorithms and the development of computer science,” he said.

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