Alan Turing’s Unseen Notebook Is Going to Auction

The rare manuscript contains notes on mathematical notation that hint towards the computer scientist’s interest in universal languages.

Apr 13 2015, 12:20pm

​Alan Turing. Image: Bonhams

A never-before-seen manuscript handwritten by British computer scientist Alan Turing is up for auction today, and is expected to attract bids of seven figures. 

Bonhams auction house in New York cla​ims the rare item is "almost certainly the only extensive autograph manuscript by Turing in existence" and has never been publicly displayed. Depending on the winning bidder, the finer details of its contents may remain under wraps.

The manuscript is a 56-page notebook that contains Turing's notes on themes including mathematical notation. "He looks at the work of several other mathematicians and logicians, including Peano, who was a 19th century Italian logician, Descartes, Leibniz, Lagrange, Arbogast, etc, and they were all people who were trying to work on building a universal language," Cassandra Hatton, a specialist in fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams, told me. "Turing is looking at their notation, how they write these things down, and analysing the problems with it, because he too was concerned with coming up with a universal language."

A page of the notebook, discusses Peano's work. Image: Bonhams

She said it was the only known extensive manuscript by Turing and had been recently discovered. So how has work by one of the most renowned mathematicians and computer scientists remained hidden? Hatton explained that Turing wrote his will about four months before he committed suicide in 1954 (after he had been prosecuted for his homosexuality, which was still illegal in the UK at that time). He left his papers and books to his friend and student, mathematician Robin​ Gandy, who took most of these to establish an ar​chive at the University of Cambridge.

But this notebook was left out of the archive. Gandy kept it, and used the blank pages in the centre of the book (Turing had only used a number of pages at the front and back) to write his personal dream diary, hidden between his friend's notes. It was first discovered after Gandy died in 1995. 

This made authenticating the notebook quite easy—not only did it contain handwriting that matches Turing and a sticker suggesting it was bought at a Cambridge stationery store local to him, but Gandy writes in the introduction to his diary, "It seems a suitable disguise to write in between these notes of Alan's on notation, but possibly a little sinister; a dead father figure, some of whose thoughts I most completely inherited."

And, Hatton said, "The ideas are very purely Turing; nobody else could have come up with these ideas."

The notebook has been dated to 1942, when Turing was working at Bletchley Park to break the German Enigma code—an achievement that was estimated to have shortened the Second World War by several years. Hatton pointed out that this dates the notebook to after Turing introduced his universal computing machine, "so the logical next step is to turn his thoughts toward universal languages." Using a universal language would help to allow machines to do mathematics.

Bonhams e​xplains that the first part of the manuscript is concerned primarily with the work of Peano, while the second half is entitled "Notes on Notation" and gets into the nitty-gritty of notation conventions in mathematics, like how to position variables. At one point Turing writes, "The Leibni​z notation dy/dx I find extremely difficult to understand in spite of it having been the one I understood the best once!"

Image: Bonhams

Some researchers have expressed dism​ay that the full contents of the notebook might stay out of reach if a private collector snaps it up; earlier this year British po​litician Lord Sharkey questioned the granting of an export license for the book, which meant it was allowed to leave the UK and be auctioned. Bonhams is also auctioning an Enigma machine in working condition.

The auction will be held today at 1 PM in New York. Hatton said it was hard to forecast who might end up with it, as Turing is a hero not only in the field of computer science and mathematics, but also for his work in World War II, and as a gay rights icon. That, and it's a truly one-off opportunity.

"There's never been a manuscript by Turing to have come to auction and it's extremely unlikely that another one ever will," she said.