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The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing's Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine by Charles Petzold

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4  The Education of Alan Turing

When Alan Turing was 10 years old, someone gave him a book by Edwin Tenney Brewster entitled Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know. This book opened the young man's eyes to science, Turing later said,1 and perhaps had an even more profound influence on his conception of the relationship between human beings and machines. “For, of course, the body is a machine,” the book asserted:

It is a vastly complex machine, many, many times more complicated than any machine ever made with hands; but still after all a machine. It has been likened to a steam engine. But that was before we knew as much about the way it works as we know now. It really is a gas engine; like the engine of an automobile, a motor boat, or a flying machine.2

By the early twentieth century, the idea that human beings are machines had become so innocent a concept that it could now be discussed in a children's book. This was not always so. Two centuries separated the life of Alan Turing from that of Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709–1751), the French doctor and philosopher whose scandalous 1747 work L'Homme Machine (Machine Man)3 had uncompromisingly portrayed man's body and even mind as the workings of a machine. Alan Turing grew up with the recognition that his body was a machine; he would be remembered most for exploring the connections between machines and the human mind.

Alan Mathison Turing was born on June 23, 1912, in a nursing home in Paddington, a borough of London. His father ...

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