Alan Turing (1912-1954) – an information management perspective

Alan Turing was born on 23 June 1912 and without out any doubt was directly responsibile for the development of computers as a member of the Bletchley Park codebreaking team during WW2. It is a measure of the international respect for Turing that in the USA the most prestigious technical award of the Association for Computing Machinery is the A.M.Turing Award.  There is an excellent book on the development of Colossus by Jack Copeland and Thomas Flowers, details of which can be found on the web site about the book and the work undertaken at Bletchley Park. At the end of the war the work of Bletchley Park turned into one of the best kept secrets of all time, only gradually being revealed in the mid-1970s. Details of the Colossus computer only started to emerge in 1983 but the full story did not become public until 2000 when a report written in 1945 on how the German Tunny code was broken using Colossus was released by the UK Public Records Office.

The extent of the secrecy was undoubtedly a contributory factor in the UK failing to develop a significant computer industry because the people with the skills to have further developed the technology went back to their positions in universities and Government service. Another skill that was lost was of how to manage and analysis very large amounts of information. A decrypt might have been about the movement of a German Army battalion, but without details of the battalion and where it was currently stationed no useful intelligence could have been passed on to field commanders. A novel means of tracking this information was developed,  with simple message record cards  supplemented by the use of optical coincidence cards with 10,000 potential hole positions. Every message card was sequentially numbered and this number punched through on a 10,000 hole card, one card for each term marked up on the message card  In effect each optical card was an inverted index,  the basis of modern search technology.  By putting a number of cards together and looking for the bright spots of light where there were common index cards enabled intelligence staff to find details of perhaps four divisions that all seem to have battalion headquaters in the same city.  When I started my career in the 1970s this type of card index was widely used but no-one seemed to know where the idea came from!  The patience needed to punch the holes accurately was enormous.

The information gleaned from this analysis was forwarded to field commanders by staff specially trained in being able to provide a sense of the accuracy of the information without giving too much away about where it came from. Not all commanders were aware of Enigma! These skills are exactly those of information scientists and other information professionals, but again the skills were not taught to a post-war generation of students by the people who had been directly involved with the Enigma decoding because of the very high degree of secrecy.  If they had been then perhaps the development of the principles and practices of information management could well have started much early than it did, with information science really only gaining momentum in the 1960s. If it had started ten years earlier perhaps we might have been able to find better solutions to the problems we face every day in managing more information that we can possibly hope to read, analyse, consider and act upon.

Martin White