Purchase of Turing papers based on a misunderstanding
Monday, 28 February 2011

Max Newman's collection of Turing offprints and the Newman Vistors' book with four signatures by Alan Turing will go on display at Bletchley Park later this year thanks to a fund raising effort. But it was probably a hugely misplaced and misunderstood effort and, yes, a waste of money.

When news that Christie's was to auction papers relating to Alan Turing a fundraising campaign was launched to buy them on behalf of the UK Bletchley Park Museum,  home of the World War II codebreaking effort. in which Alan Turing is now recognised to have played a key part. 

The funds raised by Gareth Halfacree's online appeal were not nearly enough to meet the auction's reserve even when augmented by a contribution of $100,000 by Google but in the event there was no successful bid. Now the National Heritage Memorial Fund has stepped in to provide £213,437, the final piece of funding necessary for the purchase.

But it is perhaps questionable that offprints of works that are easily accessible in digital format at the very extensive online Turing archive are being treated as if they were precious manuscripts.



This collection had belonged to Max Newman, friend and mentor to Turing and himself a Bletchley Park codebreaker. It was described in the Christie's catalog as:

an unparalleled collection of the writings of the founder of modern computing science, and one that is unlikely to be replicated

This is perhaps a carefully worded overstatement for what is in effect a collection of pre-prints and offprints of published works, some given to Newman by Turing and others collected subsequently. The term "papers" is often used in literary and other circles to mean personal writings - in this case it means published scientific papers". 

Let us be clear here, the "papers" that have been purchased  are not hand-written papers but offprints of papers that appeared in journals. They are not particular rare and you can search the web for second hand copies at prices that are at most $100.  These copies were given to Newman by Turing but you need to keep in mind that before the digital revolution handing our and requesting reprints was the standard way of spreading information about your work.

While there are some annotations to papers these are mainly Newman's and even one of the Alan Turing signatures in the Visitor's book has been inked over.

Judging from comments in other news items most commentators seem to think that these are either personal papers or something rescued from the code breaking operation during WWII - as if these were the only remaining documents after the secret service destroyed sensitive material. They are neither particularly personal nor iare they rare and they are nothing to do with code breaking.




So what all this amounts to is that the "papers" aren't particularly rare, they aren't particularly personal to Turing and the have little academic importance because they are available in the journals they were first published in and they are available online. So why did we pay so much money for them?

The most probably reason is that the idea that "papers" of a famous man were up for sale prompted a knee jerk reaction that they must be saved for the nation - without really bothering to work out if they were valuable or not.

The one positive outcome of this high profile purchase is the degree of recognition being given to Alan Turing and his work on computability and other theoretical topics and the code breaking efforts at Bletchley Park -  but the money could have been better spent on other projects at  Bletchley Park.


News from Bletchly Park

Eleventh Hour Rescue of Turing Collection

Further articles:

Alan Turing's ACE

Christies sells Apple I but not the Turing papers

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Last Updated ( Monday, 28 February 2011 )