Alan Turing had a strong Madras connect through his parents

This is the birth centenary year of Alan Mathison Turing, the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. With his concepts of algorithm and computation, demonstrated with the theoretical construct of the Turing Machine, he ushered in a revolution that is ongoing. He had a strong Madras connect through his parents.

The Turing family was of ancient Scottish descent and several members had done their bit for the establishment of the British empire. Robert Turing was perhaps the first, for in 1729, he was appointed surgeon’s mate at Fort St. David, Cuddalore.

His brother Dr. John was surgeon of the East India Company’s ship, The Greenwich. Robert later became presidency surgeon and served in Madras from 1753 to 1762. Another John Turing and his brother William joined the Madras civil services in the 1760s and served till the 1780s.

Captain James and Major Robert Turing served the Madras Army in the 1790s. Major Robert succeeded the family’s hereditary baronetcy and his son, yet another John, was a writer in the East India Company, posted at Vishakapatnam where he died in 1801.

Alan’s father Julius, from the same lineage, passed the ICS in 1896, his specialisations being Indian law and the Tamil language. He joined duty in Madras. In 1907, at Dublin, he married Ethel, daughter of Edward Waller Stoney, the chief engineer of the Madras Railway Company (MRC), headquartered at Royapuram.

Stoney designed the Tungabhadra bridge, wrote treatises on mountain railways and bridges and also patented the Stoney silent punkah wheel, an early improvement of the traditional punkah. He amassed a huge fortune and lived at 1, Nungambakkam High Road. Stoney was the first shareholder of Spencer & Co. and after retirement, became a director there. His elder brother F.G.M. Stoney was also an old MRC hand. He retired early to England owing to ill health and there made a lasting name for himself as a hydraulics engineer, specialising in sluice design.

Julius and Ethel’s first son John was delivered at the Stoney bungalow in Coonoor. Their second child, Alan, was conceived in Orissa, then a part of Madras Presidency. The baby was delivered in England on June 23, 1912, and destined to never see India. The boys were left with relatives and friends while the parents sailed back and forth from India. In 1926, the Madras connection was severed forever when Julius Turing resigned from the ICS in a huff, incensed over A.Y.G. Campbell being appointed chief secretary of Madras.

Alan was to have a brilliant academic career at Cambridge and during World War II, did path-breaking work in decoding German ciphers. The end of the war, however, was to see him prosecuted for homosexuality , then a criminal offence, and subjected to chemical castration. Turing died in 1954, aged 48, from cyanide poisoning, whether by intent or accident is an unsolved mystery.