Behind every great man and woman is an unsung hero

From Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph: Innovators such as Turing and Darwin may get all the plaudits, but these pioneers never worked in isolation

In 1936, at the age of 23, Alan Turing made the modern world possible. That’s a wild overstatement, of course. But his 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” – snappy title – first posited the possibility of a “universal machine”, what we would now call a computer, which would be able to solve any conceivable mathematical or logical problem. And from there, via several steps, we ended up with iPads and Amazon and Angry Birds.

That, in a nutshell, is why voters in a Science Museum poll last week declared Turing’s insight to be the “greatest British innovation” ever, beating dozens of rivals, including Concorde and penicillin. Turing laid the groundwork for the entire information revolution; most of the later innovations against which he was competing would have been impossible without his insight.

“People recognise, now, just how instrumental the universal machine is,” says David Rooney, the curator of a recent Turing exhibition at the Museum. “It’s not just the desktop computer: universal machines keep our power running, our water flowing; they run our mobile phones.”

But while Turing gets the lion’s share of the credit, there is another name that is less often mentioned: Tommy Flowers. Turing took the first theoretical steps, and built an early prototype, but Flowers made the first programmable computer, “Colossus” – a name that is associated in the public mind with Turing, but which Turing had little to do with. “It wasn’t a true universal machine, in the sense that Turing envisaged in 1936,” says Rooney, “but it was a true digital computer, and fantastically important.” For one thing, it made deciphering German codes far simpler: it is estimated that 90 per cent of top-level messages were intercepted and decoded, including, vitally, a message from Hitler just before D-Day, saying that he believed the Normandy landing preparations to be a feint, and ordering that no more troops be sent to reinforce the area. One historian claimed such successes shortened the war by at least two years.

Turing’s tragic story – he killed himself in 1954, aged just 41, after he was convicted of “gross indecency” for having a homosexual relationship and sentenced to chemical castration – is well known. Tommy Flowers’s life was far less dramatic, and far happier: he died in 1998, aged 92, survived by his wife and two sons. Perhaps partly for that reason, he is much more obscure. But his undeserved status, as a relative footnote in Turing’s obituary, reminds us that no innovator works completely alone. The history of science and technology is filled with great people, who deserve their fame. But often there is a Flowers figure: someone who should be as well known, but isn’t.

The discovery of DNA’s double helix shape, in 1953 – another of the Science Museum’s candidates – is a case in point. The breakthrough is associated with James Watson and Francis Crick, two brilliant young Cambridge men. In 1962 they won the Nobel Prize for the discovery, shared with Maurice Wilkins. But their work would have been impossible without the X-ray crystallography photographs taken by Rosalind Franklin, which gave Watson and Crick the vital clue.

There are many more. Charles Darwin’s discovery of evolution by natural selection is another excellent candidate for the best idea ever. But he was not alone in having it: Alfred Russel Wallace, studying the wildlife of Borneo, arrived at similar conclusions. It was correspondence with Wallace that finally pushed Darwin into publishing his theory, after two decades of work, alongside Wallace’s own essay. Once the papers were published, Wallace became one of Darwin’s most outspoken advocates.

Even Albert Einstein, the archetypal lonely pioneer, was less alone than is commonly supposed. The Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz paved the way by coming up with the “transformation equations” that described how light’s speed was constant regardless of the observer’s speed; had Einstein been hit by a bus, it may have been Lorentz who came up with relativity. And Einstein, greatest of the theorists, relied on others to prove his theories: it was a Briton, Arthur Eddington, who journeyed to the island of Principe, off the west coast of Africa, to observe the stars during a solar eclipse, and see that light bent around the sun, as Einstein predicted.

The great British innovations, like Turing’s and Darwin’s and those of Watson and Crick, should be remembered, and the men and women behind them honoured. But it’s also worth pointing out that none of them worked alone: in the words of another great Briton, Isaac Newton, they stood on the shoulders of giants.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
Follow Telegraph Blogs on Twitter


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s