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Towards a Historical Notion of ‘Turing—the Father of Computer Science’

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In the popular imagination, the relevance of Turing's theoretical ideas to people producing actual machines was significant and appreciated by everybody involved in computing from the moment he published his 1936 paper ‘On Computable Numbers’. Careful historians are aware that this popular conception is deeply misleading. We know from previous work by Campbell-Kelly, Aspray, Akera, Olley, Priestley, Daylight, Mounier-Kuhn, Haigh, and others that several computing pioneers, including Aiken, Eckert, Mauchly, and Zuse, did not depend on (let alone were they aware of) Turing's 1936 universal-machine concept. Furthermore, it is not clear whether any substance in von Neumann's celebrated 1945 ‘First Draft Report on the EDVAC’ is influenced in any identifiable way by Turing's work. This raises the questions: (i) When does Turing enter the field? (ii) Why did the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) honor Turing by associating his name to ACM's most prestigious award, the Turing Award? Previous authors have been rather vague about these questions, suggesting some date between 1950 and the early 1960s as the point at which Turing is retroactively integrated into the foundations of computing and associating him in some way with the movement to develop something that people call computer science. In this paper, based on detailed examination of hitherto overlooked primary sources, attempts are made to reconstruct networks of scholars and ideas prevalent in the 1950s, and to identify a specific group of actors interested in theorizing about computations in computers and attracted to the idea of language as a frame in which to understand computation. By going back to Turing's 1936 paper and, more importantly, to re-cast versions of Turing's work published during the 1950s (Rosenbloom, Kleene, Markov), I identify the factors that made this group of scholars particularly interested in Turing's work and provided the original vector by which Turing became to be appreciated in retrospect as the father of computer science.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Utrecht University, The Netherlands

Publication date: July 3, 2015

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