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New Alan Turing archives on show

A science book that belonged to Alan Turing at Sherborne School, that he chose in honour of his close friend Christopher Morcom, will go on display for the first time amongst a host of other loans from the Turing Archive held at King's College, Cambridge, as part of a new exhibition 'Codebreakers and Groundbreakers' at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Morcom introduced Turing to his favourite chemistry experiment, the ‘iodine clock reaction’ which the boys practiced together. Morcom was to die tragically at the age of eighteen. In his memory his parents established the 'Christopher Morcom Science Prize' at Sherborne School. Turing was the first recipient of this prize for performing the experiment shown to him by Morcom. Turing symbolically chose his prize to be a copy of the book 'Mathematical Recreations and Essays' by W. W. Rouse Ball, a Fellow of Trinity College; where Christopher was to have taken a place had he not died.

The book has influenced generations of mathematicians and the last chapter on codebreaking may have particularly intrigued a young Alan Turing. Turing's copy will go on show alongside other archive material which further reveals aspects of Turing's personality, other than as a codebreaker.

A school report from Sherborne School, Dorset, also on public display for the first time, shows Turing was a bright student, but sometimes struggled to see the value in subjects outside of maths and science, with his French teacher remarking, 'His proses have been very weak. Most of the mistakes are elementary and the result of hasty work'.  Physics was not much more positive, ' He has done some good work, but generally sets it down badly. He must remember that Cambridge will want sound knowledge rather than vague ideas'. Turing's ‘vague ideas’ would famously make the breaking of German Enigma possible, bringing World War II to an end much sooner than would have otherwise been possible, saving an untold number of lives.

Also on show is a teaspoon taken from Alan Turing's home after his death by his mother which she labelled, writing 'This is the spoon which I found in Alan's laboratory. It is similar to the one which he gold-plated himself. It seems quite probable that he was intending to gold plate this one using cyanide of potassium of his own manufacture. E. Sara Turing.’ Turing's mother never accepted the verdict of suicide that was recorded after his death, believing that it was an accidental consequence of scientific experiments carelessly conducted.

Letters displayed, one written by Turing to his mother during his time at Bletchley Park describe his sponsorship of two Jewish refugee boys. Turing and a friend at King's College, Fred Clayton, would pay to help the boys find refuge in Britain at the time Nazism was rising in Germany; in one picture shown they can all be seen in Sussex, sailing.

The material is one part of an pioneering interdisciplinary exhibition, Codebreakers & Groundbreakers, that will bring together for the first time two groups of 'Codebreakers' working at the same time, but independently: those who broke the Second World War codes and those who deciphered Linear B , Europe's earliest writing system.

27 October 2017

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