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3/25/2013
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Turing's 'Universal Machine' Voted Top British Innovation

Early sketch for a programmable computing device beats out DNA, the Mini motorcar and 97 other innovations of the past century.

The British have decided that the greatest innovation of the past century is the Universal Machine -- the philosophical concept hailed by some as the foundation of all modern IT.

Mathematician, early artificial intelligence philosopher and British father of computer science Alan Turing's thought experiment was voted the winner in a just-concluded online competition to decide what counts as the No. 1 Great British Innovation of the past 100 years. More than 50,000 people voted in the contest, which set 100 British innovations before the public.

Turing (1912-54) described what was then an entirely imagined "universal machine" in a 1936 paper, "On Computable Numbers," for a specialist mathematics journal.

In that paper, he outlined a device that would read symbols on a paper tape, proposing that the tape could be used to program the machine. Turing's ideas were realized as practical machines, starting with his own work at the country's secret code-breaking center, Bletchley Park, during World War II.

[ InformationWeek contributor Howard Anderson is making his own list of the great minds in technology. See who is on it: 20 People Who Changed Tech. ]

The Universal Machine trumped other British industrial and technical triumphs made since the early 20th century, such as the Mini motor-car, X-ray crystallography, genetic fingerprinting and the discovery of pulsars.

In an audio clip posted on the Great British Innovation website, comedian and broadcaster Stephen Fry offered the reason he voted for Turing's work. In his clip, Fry claims Turing was "a genius who shortened the War," and that the Universal Machine describes the first "programmable computer."

As a result, he said, "We all owe [Turing] a huge debt."

Astrophysicist and professor Stephen Hawking -- himself shortlisted for two great British innovations on the list -- commented via Audioboo that, "I am passionate about British innovations. They've kept me alive, enabled me to communicate and transported me around the world."

The competition was set up by a group comprising the GREAT Britain campaign, the Science Museum Group, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society, British Science Association, the government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Engineering U.K.

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