Bletchley Park tweet saves Alan Turing computing papers
- 12 March 2012
- From the section Beds, Herts & Bucks
There is something quite fitting that a single tweet sparked off a campaign to save the work of a man who helped to develop the world's first modern computer.
This, in turn, led to the development of an exhibition devoted to his life and work.
Rare mathematical papers written by Alan Turing are now part of a new display at the World War II codebreaking centre Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.
Turing, who took his own life in 1954 at the age of 41, helped to create the Bombe machine which was used to crack the Enigma code at Bletchley Park and later created one of the first designs for a stored-program computer.
During his life he only published 18 papers and gave offprints of 15 of them to his friend Prof Max Newman.
But after Newman's death, they changed hands a number of times and could have been lost to a private collector had it not been for the actions of a member of the Bletchley Park staff.
Director of museum operations Kelsey Griffin spotted they had come up for sale at Christie's auction house, and took matters into her own hands, turning to the social media network Twitter.
Disappointed to realise that the cost of this "very valuable cache of Turing's works" was way out of the reach of the Bletchley Park Trust, she posted what she called "a desolate tweet".
"The guide price of £300,000 and £500,000 meant that there was absolutely no way the Bletchley Park Trust could afford to buy them," she explained.
"I sent out a desolate tweet saying 'If only the trust could afford to buy these for the museum and its visitors'."
The call for help was spotted by Bletchley supporter and IT journalist Gareth Halfacree, who promptly launched a campaign to save the papers for the nation, which became viral across the Internet.
"Incredibly he raised £28,500 within 11 days," said Ms Griffin.
Search engine Google then pledged $100,000 (£63,800) and together with a "significant sum" from a private donor, the trust had £100,000 to spend on auction day.
"Sadly, it was a huge anti-climax because bidding started at £200,000, they failed to reach their reserve price and bidding stopped at £240,000," explained Ms Griffin.
With the papers still in danger of being sold overseas, "never to be seen or heard of again", Simon Greenish, then chief executive officer of the trust, entered into talks with Christie's and the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF).
The campaign also received the backing of Prime Minister David Cameron.
Then, in February 2011, the papers were finally saved when the NHMF stepped in to provide the final piece of funding of nearly £213,500.
"What started off as just one tweet had become almost the mission of a determined nation to bring this collection here to Bletchley Park," said Ms Griffin.
After the papers went on display, people began to offer items to the museum, which eventually became The Life and Works of Alan Turing exhibition.
It has now been longlisted for the Art Fund Prize 2012, the UK's annual museum of the year award.
Turing's family then stepped forward with some of his personal artefacts, which are now on show to the public for the first time.
These include a teddy bear called Porgy, a biography of the scientist written by his mother, prize books awarded at school and his wristwatch, all of which provide a personal insight into the man.
William Newman, son of Cambridge professor Max Newman, then provided a hand-drawn Monopoly board on which the young William had played and beaten Turing.
Ms Griffin said they now not only had his papers, "but the most comprehensive exhibition of the life and works of Alan Turing in the world. The personal artefacts have added a very human dimension and we're very proud to have this open."
She said she was "thrilled" that her actions had led to the development of the exhibition and was proud that the tweet linked the story back to its origins.
"I'm absolutely delighted and almost still in a state of disbelief that all of this has come together," she said.
"One of the very poignant things in the exhibition is a letter to Alan Turing's mother written 20 years after his death when she was told for the very first time what a huge contribution he'd made to the outcome of World War II and also the vital contribution he'd made to the modern computer.
"So the fact that this astonishing collection of his life and works has been brought here by the very act of a tweet on a computer is rather fitting in itself - it rounds off the story."