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human progress lesson

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 34: Alan Turing

In this lesson, students will learn about the tragic life of mathematical genius and key founder of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

By Sean Kinnard


Heroes of Progress

13-part unit
  • Tu Youyou
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 25: Tu Youyou

    In this article, Alexander C. R. Hammond explains how Tu Youyou’s discovery of artemisinin was “arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half [of the 20th] century.”

  • Richard Cobden
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 9: Richard Cobden

    Cobden’s work turned Britain, the global hegemon at the time, into a free trading nation – an act that set in motion global trade liberalization that has lifted millions of people out of poverty.

  • John Snow
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 45: John Snow

    This lesson is about John Snow, an English physician and pioneer in anesthesia and epidemiology. Snow’s groundbreaking work led to the widespread adoption of anesthesia as well as a significant improvement in public health around the world.

  • James Watt
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 13: James Watt

    Some historians believe that the Industrial Revolution has been the most fundamental change in human life since the Neolithic Revolution, when prehistoric humans turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture. James Watt was a key figure in this transformation.

  • Alan Turing
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 34: Alan Turing

    In this lesson, students will learn about the tragic life of mathematical genius and key founder of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

  • Kate Sheppard
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 27: Kate Sheppard

    In this lesson, students will learn about the extraordinary life of Kate Sheppard, the inspirational suffragist whose tireless work and petitioning of New Zealand’s parliament in the latter half of the 19th century is largely credited for the nation becoming the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893.

  • astell and wollstonecraft
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 46: Astell and Wollstonecraft

    In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft, two feminist authors whose philosophical ideas helped form the basis for later movements for gender equality and female empowerment.

  • green borlaug
    Heroes of Progress: Norman Borlaug

    In this lesson, you’ll explore the life of Norman Borlaug, Ph.D. using text and video and consider the lessons we can apply from his story to our own lives and to current world problems.

  • Rosemary Fike
    Rosemarie Fike: Women and Progress

    Rosemarie Fike is an instructor of economics at Texas Christian University and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute. Her research focuses on understanding the effects of different types of economic institutions on women’s status and lives.

  • Lucy Wills cover
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 28: Lucy Wills

    In this lesson, students will learn about Lucy Wills, a pioneering physician‐​researcher who discovered the link between inadequate nutrition and anemia in pregnant women.

  • Babbage and Lovelace hero
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 49: Babbage and Lovelace

    In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of two 19th‐​century mathematicians and computing pioneers: Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. These two English polymaths conceived the first automatic computer and recognized that it could have applications beyond mere calculation. Together, they laid the groundwork for modern computing.

In this lesson, students will learn about the tragic life of mathematical genius and key founder of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing. Not only is Turing known as the ‘Father of Computer Science’ for his triumphs in both theoretical and applied computing, but his code‐​breaking work during World War II likely shortened the conflict and saved the lives of millions.


Watch this short video about the enigma code.

  • In partners, small groups, or as a whole class, have students respond to the following questions:
    • What was the enigma machine and why did the Germans think that its code was unbreakable?
    • Why did the Poles believe that it was important to decode the enigma machine during the late 1930s?
    • How were the discoveries of Polish codebreakers transferred to the British and French intelligence services?
  • Alan Turing and the team at Bletchley Park were able to break the German enigma code after a stroke of insight. Watch this clip from the award‐​winning 2014 biopic “The Imitation Game” for a dramatic (and historically‐​condensed) rendition of their important discovery. Then discuss the following questions:
    • Hitler’s cult of personality and Nazi dogma allowed Turing and his team to break the enigma code. Which habit of enigma operators was Turing and his team able to exploit? Specifically, what were the exact words the Nazis normally included in messages?
    • In the clip, Turing is shown using a large machine. Make a prediction. How was the invention of this machine able to help break German codes and shorten the war?

Questions for Reading, Writing, and Discussion

Read the article, and then answer the following questions:

  • What has been the long‐​term significance of Turing’s 1936 academic paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (i.e., decision problem)? How do the ideas in this document continue to affect our everyday lives?
  • What was the name of the machine that Turing invented that significantly helped in decoding the Nazi enigma code? What did this device do?
  • Turing’s brilliance was shown when he personally broke the code used by the German submarine fleet in 1941. Think about the larger context of World War II. Why was the breaking of that code of particular importance to Great Britain at that time? (The answer is not in the article; you must use your historical background knowledge.)
  • In the chart below, write a summary of Turing’s achievements in each field. In the right column, describe what you believe have been the most important impacts of each achievement.
What were Turing’s seminal achievements in this field? What were the most important impacts of that achievement?
Theoretical computing
Enigma code breaking
Hands‐​on creation of computers

  • Despite his heroic service to the Allied cause during World War II and his pioneering work on the world’s first computers during the late 1940s, Turing was publicly vilified in 1952 for engaging in homosexual activity and was cruelly punished by the British justice system. Tragically, Turing committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41.

In subsequent years, how have Turing’s achievements been recognized? In what ways has the government of the United Kingdom tried to make amends for the savage injustice meted out to Turing?

Extension Activity/​Homework

Make a Forecast Almost
100 years ago, Alan Turing came up with the theoretical framework for modern computers. His academic work was the foundation for the laptops and smartphones that we now rely on every day.

  • Watch this short video on how Turing “accidently” invented the computer, and then respond to the following prompt:
    How will computers evolve over the next 100 years? In a short essay, make a forecast about the types of tasks you think computers will be able to accomplish over the next century. Then describe how these advances will affect your everyday life. Write in detail about at least three changes you believe will occur as well as the specific ways people’s everyday experiences will change as a result.
  • Reflect on Your Own Reaction
    How did reading about Turing’s life story affect you?
    In a short reflective piece—either a paragraph, poem, song, drawing, or other creative medium of your choice—describe your personal reaction to Turing’s life story.
    Here are some ideas to get you started.
    • What is one word to capture your feeling after reading the article? How does that word capture your emotions?
    • What is one question you still have about Turing’s life and legacy?
    • What is one quote or detail from the article that particularly resonated with you? Why?