Sunday, 6 May 2012

Out of Their Trees - Alan Turing

In this centenary year of Alan Turing’s birth I couldn’t pass up the chance to present his ancestry. Is there anything is his background that hinted at his genius? There are two things to look at – maths and sport.

Obviously, maths is what Turing is remembered for today by producing the mathematical theory behind the computer and the mathematical logic he used when working as a war-time code-breaker. But he was also quite sporty. At Cambridge University Alan didn’t relax with the literary and academic circles but spent a lot of time running, rowing or sailing. He would run along the banks of the Cam and Ouse rivers training as if for a marathon. In this his centenary year several athletic clubs are holding special Turing running events to celebrate.

Apart from that the only sporting connection in the family is through his father’s brother Harvey. Harvey dabbled in engineering in Canada, but after World War I he turned to journalism and writing. He became editor of the “Salmon and Trout Magazine” and wrote about other sports.

The Turings were basically a colonial administrative family. They originated in Foveran in Aberdeenshire, going back to the time of Robert the Bruce in the 13th century. In 1638 John Turing of Forevan was created a baronet by King Charles I for helping support the royalist cause in the north. John’s brother was Alan Turing’s ancestor.

When we reach Alan Turing’s grandfather the family story moves to Sherwood Forest. Rev. John Turing was vicar of Edwinstowe and Ollerton, right in the heart of Robin Hood country. He was vicar of the church where legend says Robin Hood married Maid Marian. Rev. Turing took a maths degree at Cambridge in 1848, but he wasn’t particularly gifted and became a clergyman. This seems a too small a spark to set Alan’s mathematical mind alight, so perhaps he got it from his mother’s family.

Julius Turing, Alan’s father, was Rev. Turing’s second son. He was born in Edwinstowe vicarage. He entered the Indian Civil Service and it was on a voyage from India to America via Japan that he met his future wife Ethel Stoney. Before they reached America they were engaged.

Ethel Stoney came from a family of engineers. Her father was Chief Engineer of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway. Two of Ethel’s uncles were colonial engineers. Maths is essential to engineering, and Alan’s understanding of the use of maths to create the computer is evidently inherited from his mother’s family.

As for the rest of Turing’s ancestry there is more Celt than Anglo-Saxon. His father’s family were predominantly Scottish and his mother’s were predominantly Irish. Rev. John Turing’s mother (Alan’s great-grandmother) was of royal blood. Her grandfather Arthur Dingwall-Fordyce (1754-1834) of Bruckley Castle in Aberdeenshire, was descended from two children of King James IV Stewart of the Scots (1473-1513).

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