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NPL receives £50 note featuring Alan Turing and Pilot ACE from Bank of England

Today we take our computers for granted, but it all started with NPL’s ACE and Alan Turing, both of which feature on the new £50 note

Today, on Alan Turing’s birthday, the new £50 note enters circulation. The note, featuring the pioneering mathematician, also features the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) Pilot Machine, one of the first computers built in the UK, developed at NPL as the trial model of Turing’s pioneering ACE design. 

Whilst best known for his work devising code-breaking machines during WWII, Turing played a pivotal role in the development of early computers, first at NPL and later at the University of Manchester. His ability to see the world differently led to scientific developments that have shaped the modern world, this was likely strongly influenced by the different perspectives he had to those of many of his peers as a member of both the LGBTQ+ and neurodivergent communities and likely shaped and influenced his ability to think outside the box.

Work began on the world’s first ACE in 1946, with the final version going into service in 1958. Turing was part of a group formed by John Womersley who recognised Turing’s genius and employed him for the design and construction and during his time at NPL, he made the first plan of the ACE and carried out a great deal of pioneering work in the design of subroutines.

Building the next generation of computer scientists, J H Wilkinson, who joined NPL on the 1st May 1946, followed by Mike Woodger on 20th May 1946, both worked alongside Turing on the Pilot ACE as did Donald Davies, who briefly worked with Turing and went on to pioneer packet-switching, the technology that underpins the internet. They were inspired by the unique perspectives and innovative approaches that Turing was able to see. As such, when Turing left NPL it ensured the continued development of the ACE, bringing diverse perspectives from other disciplines to improve his initial design. It was soon used for solving partial differential equations for use in applications including the design of aircraft, ships and electronic apparatus.

In 1950, Turing published his “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” paper, opening with the claim, “I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’”, a question which still continues to influence the field of artificial intelligence.

As the field of computing is ever evolving and as AI becomes a companion in our homes and our pockets, the teamwork that made Turing’s vision come alive in the 1950s continues today in the work NPL’s data scientists and colleagues are conducting. Today we understand the value of diversity of perspective, and the modern field of AI and data science is actively embracing difference, with recognition that ethical and trustworthy AI can only be achieved through a diverse and inclusive multidisciplinary research approach.

As we develop data standards and platforms to help collect, connect, and comprehend data, as well as evaluate uncertainty to support traceability and reliable decision-making, inclusive innovation and removal of bias from systems are critical to helping us address some of the world’s biggest challenges. NPL’s scientists are using a multidisciplinary research approach to help organisations analyse and use data with confidence to address some of these challenges.

None of which would be possible today without the work by Turing and his team 75 years ago. While Turing’s work was celebrated, at the time his difference was not. As a gay man he was persecuted and as a consequence of that a great talent was lost to not only science but the world. Some of the concepts he left behind are still not understood to this day. The impact of pioneers like Alan Turing continues to inspire new generations of scientists to value and harness the power of diversity.

Dr Peter Thompson FREng, CEO of NPL, stated “Alan Turing’s time at NPL and the development of the pilot ACE are an important part of NPL’s scientific history. With both Turing and the ACE being depicted pictorially on the £50 note we have a lasting reminder of something we, as an organisation recognise to be the most significant thing in not only scientific endeavour, but in endeavour in general, that via teamwork and the coming together of different perspectives, we can solve problems and overcome some of the biggest challenges of our time. For any organisation, scientific or other, fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce creates an environment where innovation thrives and everybody feels safe and secure in their workplace. As we receive the bank note, it will be a constant reminder of this to all at NPL, so I extend my thanks to the Bank of England on this special occasion.”

Louise Wright, Head of Digital Metrology; “Turing’s greatest legacy at NPL was the people he worked with and inspired. He and his colleagues laid the foundations for NPL to develop expertise in the numerical analysis and uncertainty evaluation techniques required to support metrology as it moved into the computer age. Now as we move towards delivering more of our metrology digitally, his ideas around artificial intelligence remain relevant and his work at NPL continues to inspire scientists across the laboratory to deliver confidence in data through the kind of digital technologies that would be unthinkable without his foundational work on stored-program computers.”

Find out more about Alan Turing.

Watch our film exploring Alan Turing’s Automatic Computing Engine, with interviews from his past colleagues.

23 Jun 2021