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Communications of the ACM

Historical reflections

Colossal Genius: Tutte, Flowers, and a Bad Imitation of Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Alan Turing

A scene from the 2014 film The Imitation Game with actor Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Alan Turing.

Credit: Snap Stills / Rex / Shutterstock

May 14, 2017, will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of someone you might not have heard of: William Thomas ("Bill") Tutte. During the Second World War he made several crucial contributions to decrypting the Lorenz cipher used to protect the Nazi high command's most crucial radio communications. This work provided the statistical method implemented electronically by Tommy Flowers, a telecommunications engineer, in the Colossus machines, which pioneered many of the electronic engineering techniques later used to build digital computers and network equipment.a

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Myths of Bletchley Park

The British code-breaking effort of the Second World War, formerly secret, is now one of the most celebrated aspects of modern British history, an inspiring story in which a free society mobilized its intellectual resources against a terrible enemy. That's a powerful source of nostalgic pride for a country whose national identity and relationship with its neighbors are increasingly uncertain. Tutte's centennial gives a chance to consider the broader history of Bletchley Park, where the codebreakers worked, and the way in which it has been remembered. Some kinds of people, and work, have become famous and others have not.


Richard Gabriel

I like the thrust of Thomas Haighs essay on myths in technical arenas. Our discipline is flooded with instances where a single person is given credit for the achievements of a larger group, or that assign the origin of an idea to the first (ACM or IEEE) conference paper that describes it.

The essay, though, suffers from its own historiography related flaws. It repeatedly attributes to Benedict Cumberbatch lines and actions from the film, The Imitation Game, as if those lines and actions were Cumberbatchs. For example, Haigh writes, Cumberbatch dismisses his fellow codebreakers, saying I dont have time to explain myself as I go along, and Im afraid these men would only slow me down. And, Cumberbatch drew up the engineering blueprints for the one and only Bombe. As best I know, Benedict Cumberbatch never had any fellow codebreakers, nor did he draw up any blueprints for the Bombe.

I suspect that Haigh was trying to use a simple attribution instead of a lengthy one: Cumberbatch instead of Turing as portrayed in the film or Turing as portrayed by Cumberbatch in the film. Or perhaps Haigh used these more accurate references, but the editors at CACM trimmed them. Nevertheless, the abbreviation to Cumberbatch needs to be pointed out.

If Thomas Haigh had played Turing in this film, I could write, Haigh dismisses his fellow codebreakers, saying I dont have time to explain myself as I go along, and Im afraid these men would only slow me down. I suspect Haigh would not approve of this.

A related flaw is the implication that Turing is portrayed in the manner of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock because Benedict Cumberbatch plays both characters. The facts as I surmise them are more interesting. The screenplay was written by Graham Moore, whose first novel was The Sherlockian. This leads to the hypothesis that Moore believed a Holmesian portrayal of Turing would make a good story, and wrote the screenplay thus. If so, then perhaps Cumberbatch was cast as Turing to support this portrayal. Janet Maslin wrote this in her review of The Sherlockian in the New York times in 2010:

consider The Sherlockian, a new novel predicated entirely on Holmes worship, Holmes mimicry, Holmes artifacts and assorted other forms of Holmesiana. Its smart young author, Graham Moore, has done much more than fall into the fancy of Holmess existence. He has fallen down a Holmes well.

At a higher level, these are common mistakes when art is poorly understood. Graham Moore, the screenwriter, said this in response to criticisms like Haighs:

When you use the language of fact checking to talk about a film, I think you're sort of fundamentally misunderstanding how art works. You don't fact check Monet's Water Lilies. That's not what water lilies look like, that's what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feel like. That's the goal of the piece.

In short, I applaud what Thomas Haigh is trying to do in pointing out the importance of getting history right - in fact, consider me a cheerleader. I would prefer, however, a more rigorous and more thoroughly rigorous approach.

Thomas Haigh

Replying to Richard Gabriel:

You are quite right that, for reasons of concision, I consistently referred to the movie version of Turing portrayed by Cumberbatch as "Cumberbatch" and the historical Turing as "Turing." I think everything I wrote is literally true -- Cumberbatch did do and say those things, albeit for the camera. I am not seeking to blame Cumberbatch personally for the inanity of some of the things the script requires him to say. Your point that Moore has a special relationship with Holmes and perhaps saw in Turing a similar character is an interesting one, and would help to explain the resemblance and the casting of Cumberbatch, who seems to be cast in a rather narrow range of roles. For the purposes of this article my concern is with the film as a finished unit, conveying a particular view of history, rather than with the internal processes and collaborations that produced it. My personal opinion is that the film fails as art, and even as entertainment, as well as history but that's outside the scope of the article. If Moore wants us to judge him on the sensation his art produces, to me it felt more like a Hallmark card or a "very special episode" of a sitcom than a Monet.

Roy Levien

Another possible reason that the Colossus efforts are not associated with the work at Bletchley Park in the popular imagination is the ongoing dispute between The National Museum of Computing (which displays a restored Colossus in its original location in Hut H) and the Bletchley Park Trust (which does not exhibit one). Visitors to the latter are often puzzled at the effort required to get from the "main" campus of Bletchley and Hut H (there are many obstacles, including a fence and seemingly unnecessary walk along a road) or simply don't know about Hut H until they need to catch their trains home. While there has been some progress made since this dispute erupted into the press in 2014, the experience for visitors remains far from ideal, and it's easy to feel that one has "done Bletchley" without seeing (or even learning much about) Colossus.

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