What if Alan Turing Had Been an Engineer?

Firdaus Adib
10 min readMay 21, 2023

Imagine, if you will, a parallel universe. A universe where Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, the codebreaker extraordinaire, the man who pondered the question of artificial intelligence before it was cool, was not a mathematician or a logician, but an engineer. Let’s call this universe the “Engineer Turing Universe” or ETU for short.

In the ETU, Turing’s life takes a slightly different trajectory. Instead of poring over mathematical proofs and theoretical constructs, he’s elbows deep in gears, circuits, and blueprints. He’s not just thinking about a “universal machine” — he’s making one.

The Birth of a Prodigy

Alan Turing was born June 23, 1912, in Maida Vale, London. His parents, Julius Mathison Turing and Ethel Sara Stoney, lived in India at the time since Julius was in the Indian Civil Service. To make sure they got a British upbringing and education, they decided to have their kids in England.

His parents were abroad while he and his older brother, John, were raised in foster homes and boarding schools in southern England. Despite the distance, his parents wrote regularly to their sons.

The Formative Years

Turing’s father, a member of the Indian Civil Service, believed in the value of a good education. As such, Turing was enrolled at Sherborne School, a prestigious independent school in Dorset. It was here that Turing’s exceptional aptitude for science and mathematics began to shine. He displayed a natural curiosity and a keen intellect, traits that would later define his career.

In 1931, Turing entered the University of Cambridge to study mathematics. He worked hard, which paid off when he graduated in 1934. He got a fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge for his research in probability theory, a branch of mathematics that analyzes random events. His achievement marked him as one of the brightest minds in our generation.

The Engineer Turing Universe (ETU) — The Early Years

Early Years in an Alternate Universe

Now, let’s take a detour into the Engineer Turing Universe (ETU). In this parallel world, young Alan Turing is not just a prodigy in mathematics and science, but also a budding engineer. His curiosity extends beyond abstract concepts and equations to the tangible, mechanical world around him.

Toy Mechanic

In the ETU, Alan Turing’s childhood is a testament to his budding engineering genius. His toys aren’t just items of amusement — they’re subjects of intense scrutiny. As opposed to running his toy trains along their tracks, he’s usually found with the locomotive’s innards spread out before him, brow furrowed in concentration while he tries to figure out how it works.

His bedroom, in this universe, is more like a personal workshop than a place to rest. It’s a landscape of disassembled toys and tools, a testament to a mind that can’t rest until it knows how things work. His parents encourage his curiosity instead of scolding him for the mess. Young Turing gets more complicated toys like clockwork soldiers, intricate music boxes, model steam engines — each one a new challenge for him.

School Inventor

When Turing attends Sherborne School in the ETU, his engineering talents begin to truly shine. He quickly gains a reputation as the school’s resident inventor. The science fair becomes his stage, a place where he can showcase his latest creations.

One year, he stuns his teachers and peers by constructing a miniature wind turbine. With metal sheets, a small motor, and an impressive understanding of aerodynamics, he creates a device that makes electricity from wind. His project shows not only that he had the technical skills to construct the wind turbine but also that he had the creativity to come up with the idea and the concern for the environment to pursue a sustainable energy source. His project demonstrates his commitment to creating a better world.

In another year, he builds a rudimentary radio. Using coils of wire, a crystal, and a pair of headphones, he manages to catch radio broadcasts, much to the amazement of his classmates. His radio, while simple, is a marvel of engineering and a clear demonstration of his understanding of electromagnetic waves.

A blend of creativity, technical skill, and an understanding of the underlying scientific principles, Turing’s projects earn him respect and admiration from his teachers and peers. The talk of the school is often about his work, inspiring other students to study science and engineering.

A whirlwind of invention and discovery happened in Turing’s early years at ETU. Every project he takes on reflects his passion for understanding the mechanics of the world around him. He will later do groundbreaking work in computing based on these formative experiences.

The Engineer Turing Universe (ETU) — The War Years

Enigma Tinkerer

In the ETU, as World War II breaks out, Turing’s engineering skills are put to the ultimate test. He’s not just a mathematician or a logician anymore — he’s an engineer on the front lines of a different kind of battle. He’s recruited by the Government Code and Cypher School in Bletchley Park, tasked with the monumental challenge of breaking the Enigma code. The Enigma machine, used by the Germans to encrypt their military communications, is a marvel of engineering — and a formidable adversary.

In this universe, Turing’s engineering prowess comes to the fore. He’s not just working out the theoretical underpinnings of the code — he’s also tinkering with the physical Enigma machines. He’s the man in the workshop, surrounded by blueprints and machine parts, trying to figure out the machine’s weaknesses and designing devices to exploit them.

Imagine Turing, his hands stained with oil, his brow furrowed in concentration, as he disassembles an Enigma machine. He’s studying its rotors, its plugboard, its keyboard, trying to understand its intricacies. He’s testing its mechanisms, looking for weaknesses, for anything that could give him an edge.

Bombe Machine

In our universe, Turing designed the Bombe machine, a device used to speed up the process of deciphering Enigma messages. But in the ETU, Engineer Turing doesn’t just design the Bombe — he builds it.

Picture Turing in his workshop, surrounded by blueprints and parts. He’s working tirelessly, assembling the Bombe piece by piece. He’s adjusting gears, tightening screws, testing circuits. His hands are stained with oil, his eyes are heavy with exhaustion, but he doesn’t stop. He can’t. There’s a war on, and his machine could be the key to winning it.

In the ETU, the Bombe machine might have been even more efficient under Turing’s guidance. Perhaps he would have found ways to make it run faster, or to reduce the number of false positives. Maybe he would have added features that we can’t even imagine.

The Engineer Turing Universe (ETU) — The Dawn of the Computer Age

Universal Machine Builder

After the war, Turing’s focus shifts from code-breaking machines to a new kind of machine — a universal one. In our universe, Turing’s universal machine was a theoretical construct, a mathematical model that laid the groundwork for the modern computer. But in the ETU, Turing isn’t just theorizing — he’s building.

Imagine Turing in his workshop, surrounded by blueprints and machine parts once again. But this time, he’s not building a machine to break codes — he’s building a machine to simulate any other machine given the right inputs and instructions. He’s building a computer.

The First Computers

The year is 1950. The war has ended, and the world is in the throes of a technological revolution. In the heart of this whirlwind of change, in a small workshop in Manchester, Alan Turing is about to unveil his latest creation.

As you step into Turing’s workshop, the first thing you notice is the hum. It’s a steady, rhythmic sound, like the heartbeat of a mechanical beast. Following the sound, your eyes land on a large table in the center of the room. On it rests Turing’s masterpiece — a computer unlike any you’ve ever seen.

The machine is a marvel of engineering efficiency. Its design is sleek and compact, a stark contrast to the hulking machines of the day. The circuitry, visible through a clear panel on one side, is a labyrinth of wires and tubes, meticulously arranged for optimal performance. You can see the energy-saving features Turing has incorporated — capacitors and resistors chosen for their low power consumption, circuits designed to minimize waste.

The interface of the machine is surprisingly user-friendly. The controls are intuitive, clearly labeled and logically arranged. The display, a phosphor screen, glows with a soft green light, the data it presents is clear and easy to read. Turing explains that he wanted his machine to be accessible to all, not just the technically inclined.

One of the most striking features of Turing’s computer is its cooling system. Vents are strategically placed to allow for maximum airflow, and you can see the gleam of heat sinks, designed to dissipate the heat generated by the machine’s operations.

The computer’s components are modular, designed for easy upgrades and repairs. Turing shows you how each part can be removed and replaced without disturbing the rest of the machine. He talks about the importance of future-proofing, of designing a machine that can evolve with the times.

Finally, Turing introduces you to the computer’s built-in diagnostics system. He explains how the machine can perform self-tests, monitor its own performance, and report any errors. It’s a level of self-awareness that seems almost… sentient.

As you leave Turing’s workshop, you can’t help but feel that you’ve witnessed the dawn of a new era. Turing’s computer, with its blend of efficiency, user-friendliness, and self-diagnostic capabilities, is a testament to his engineering genius. It’s a machine that’s not just built for the present, but for the future.

The Engineer Turing Universe (ETU) — The AI Conundrum

The Birth of AI

In the ETU, Turing’s work on computers naturally leads him to the next frontier: artificial intelligence. He’s fascinated by the idea of a machine that can not only compute, but also think, learn, and adapt. He’s not just interested in creating a machine that can mimic human intelligence — he wants to understand what intelligence really is.

Imagine Turing in his workshop, surrounded by blueprints and machine parts. But this time, he’s not building a machine to break codes or simulate other machines — he’s building a machine to simulate the human mind. He’s building an AI.

The Turing Test

In our universe, Turing proposed a test to determine a machine’s intelligence — the famous Turing Test. In the ETU, Engineer Turing takes this a step further. He doesn’t just propose the test — he builds a machine to pass it.

Picture Turing, working late into the night, programming his AI. He’s teaching it to learn, to adapt, to understand. He’s feeding it data, testing its responses, refining its algorithms. He’s not just building an AI — he’s nurturing it.

The AI Conundrum

But as Turing’s AI grows more sophisticated, he begins to grapple with the ethical implications of his work. What does it mean to create a machine that can think? What rights does such a machine have? And what responsibilities do its creators bear?

In the ETU, Turing becomes a leading voice in the emerging field of AI ethics. He advocates for responsible AI development, for transparency and accountability. He warns of the dangers of unchecked AI advancement, of the potential for misuse and abuse. His AI, though a marvel of engineering, also serves as a stark reminder of the ethical challenges posed by advanced technology.

The Engineer Turing Universe (ETU) — The Legacy

In the ETU, Turing’s legacy is not just as a mathematician, a logician, or a codebreaker, but as an engineer. His work on the Enigma machine and the Bombe helped win a war. His work on the universal machine helped kickstart the computer age. His work on AI posed questions that we are still grappling with today.

Engineer Turing might have left us with more than just theories and concepts. He might have left us with machines — tangible, physical embodiments of his genius. His computers, efficient and user-friendly, would have set the standard for the machines that followed. His AI, advanced yet ethically conscious, would have laid the groundwork for the development of responsible AI. His insights into the nature of intelligence, both human and artificial, would have shaped our understanding of what it means to think.

In our universe, Turing’s legacy is monumental. His work laid the foundation for the digital age and transformed our world in ways he could never have imagined. But in the ETU, his impact could have been even more profound. His work laid the groundwork for everything from the smartphone in your pocket to the servers that power the internet.

In the ETU, Turing is remembered as a pioneer, a visionary who saw the potential of machines to not just do our bidding, but to simulate our thinking. His work continues to inspire engineers and computer scientists today, reminding us all of the power of a curious mind and a hands-on approach.

So there you have it — a glimpse into the Engineer Turing Universe. It’s a fascinating place to visit, but remember — it’s just one of an infinite number of possible universes. In another universe, Turing might have been a biologist, a musician, or a chef. The possibilities are as endless as Turing’s own genius.

But as we hop back into our own universe, let’s take a moment to appreciate the Turing we had. Mathematician, logician, codebreaker, visionary — our Turing was a man who changed the world with his mind. And that’s pretty damn impressive, don’t you think?

Whether Turing was a mathematician or an engineer, his legacy remains the same. He dared to dream, to question, to innovate. He saw a world that could be, and he made it a reality. And that is genius.

Next time you use your smartphone, browse the internet, or ask Siri for the weather, think about Alan Turing. Because we live in a universe that he helped create. And it’s pretty cool.

Don’t stop wondering, keeping asking questions, and exploring. Because who knows? You might be the next Turing.



Firdaus Adib

Web craft. Rails. Data Science. Biohack. Currently learning iOS.