For Alan Turing

On the occasion of Alan Turing’s birthday today, this release from NPL:

1912 – 1954:  Alan Turing’s work was instrumental in placing NPL at the forefront of computer technology.

Turing had already achieved a great deal before he started work at NPL. While at King’s College, Cambridge, he earned a scholarship, Maths Tripos Part II Distinction, fellowship and Smith’s Prize, as well as writing his paper on Computable Numbers. He then moved on to Princeton University and earned his PhD in 1938, before moving back to Cambridge and starting work at the Government Code and Cryptography School in 1939, where he was an essential part of the work to break the German Enigma code.

After the war he moved to NPL in 1945, and produced his plans for the ACE computer in 1946. He worked at NPL on the ACE until he left (after being on leave to Cambridge) in 1948, not long after writing his Intelligent Machinery paper.

Two things here: the identity of NPL; and more on celebrations of Alan Turing.

NPL. “About us” from NPL’s site:


NPL is the UK’s National Metrology Institute, developing and maintaining the national primary measurement standards. It is a Public Corporation owned by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It has a partnering agreement with BEIS and the University of Strathclyde and the University of Surrey. NPL is part of the National Measurement System (NMS) which provides the UK with a national measurement infrastructure and delivers the UK Measurement Strategy on behalf of BEIS.

We undertake excellent science and engineering to deliver extraordinary impact for the UK and provide the measurement capability that underpins the UK’s prosperity and quality of life. From accelerating new antibiotics and more effective cancer treatments to developing unhackable quantum communications and superfast 5G, our expertise is crucial in researching, developing and testing new products and processes.

There’s a lot more on the site, but as far as I can tell, nowhere is the initialism NPL explained. Apparently, NPL is an orphan initialism, a letter string that began life as an initialistic abbreviation, but then was declared to be just a letter-string name, with no further meaning. (I’ve written a fair amount about these, starting with the 9/7/06 Language Log posting “Orphan initialisms”.)

After a certain amount of rooting around, I finally came up with this Wikipedia page:

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the national measurement standards laboratory for the United Kingdom. Founded in 1900, it is one of the oldest standardising laboratories in the world.

Today, it is one of the most extensive government laboratories in the UK and has a “prestigious” reputation for its role in setting and maintaining physical standards for British industry. The heads of the NPL have included many individuals who were pillars of the British scientific establishment. Research work at NPL has contributed to the advancement of many disciplines of science, including the development of atomic clocks as well as packet switching, which is today one of the fundamental technologies of the Internet.

NPL is based at Bushy Park in Richmond borough, London, England. It comes under the management of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Turing on a banknote. In other fairly recent Turing news, from Smithsonian Magazine, “Alan Turing Will Be the New Face of Britain’s £50 Note: Persecuted at the end of his life [just short of his 42nd birthday], the British mathematician and code-breaker is now widely admired as a father of computer science” by Brigit Katz on 7/16/19:


My previous posting on Turing. From my 4/8/12 posting “Turing at 100” (be prepared for an outburst of sheer rage in the midst of this)

In the April 4th [2012] Princeton Alumni Magazine, “Daybreak of the Digital Age: The world celebrates the man who imagined the computer”, by W. Barksdale Maynard: a piece on Alan Turing, the great mathematician (and, during WWII, an extraordinary code-breaker) who got his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1938. His 100th birthday comes on June 23rd, to celebrations in Princeton and in the U.K.

… Turing at Princeton, from PAW:

Turing arrived in Princeton in October 1936, moving into 183 Graduate College and living alongside several of his fellow countrymen — enough for a “British Empire” versus “Revolting Colonies” softball game. A star runner, Turing enjoyed playing squash and field hockey and canoeing on Stony Brook. Still, Turing made few close friends. He was shy and awkward [he was quite obviously on the spectrum, as we say these days], with halting speech that has been imitated by actor Derek Jacobi in the biopic movie Breaking the Code. Being homosexual, Turing felt like an outsider. [And then was prosecuted for having homosexual relations, was chemically castrated by court order, and died by cyanide poisoning, almost surely by his own hand. In 19-fucking-54, in the UK, nominally a civilized place. No mere apology from the government can begin to redress the extraordinary barbarity of its treatment of him, and the fact that it was just routine at the time only makes things worse. I was 14 then, soon learned the outlines of the case, and realized that If They Can, They Will Kill You.]

Turing and me. Turing machines — the abstract automata devised by Turing — played a big role in my mathematics education at Princeton, largely through Stephen C. Kleene’s Introduction to Metamathematics (1952) and Martin Davis’s Computability and Unsolvability (1958). And then I took a course from Alonzo Church (who was in his 30s when he directed [Turing’s doctoral dissertation] and lived into his 90s), and he was on the orals committee for my senior thesis (on the theory of formal languages), 24 years after Turing defended his dissertation — also in Fine Hall [the mathematics building].

5 Responses to “For Alan Turing”

  1. Mark Mandel Says:

    After reading your first paragraph or two, I followed the link. I scrolled all the way to the foot of the page, and there I saw:

    © National Physical Laboratory 2020

    National Physical Laboratory | Hampton Road, Teddington, Middlesex, TW11 0LW | Tel: 020 8977 3222

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, yes, I found it too, by another route. The fact remains that on a site that conspicuously unpacks all of its other initialisms, the text never does this once for NPL.

  2. John Wells Says:

    If you’d asked me, I could have told you that the NPL was the National Physical Laboratory, and also its location (Teddington). I knew someone who worked there.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    The point is not that I couldn’t figure out the meaning of the initialism — there were many possible routes to this, though I wouldn’t have thought of writing you — but the fact that the organization systematically refuses to expand its initialistic name (while expanding all of its other initialisms). That’s what makes the name an orphan. Not as spectacularly an orphan as, say, SRI International (where the company says sternly that the letters DO NOT STAND FOR ANYTHING, particular anything with “Stanford” in it), but more like AARP, which allows that it used to be the the American Association of Retired Persons (and maybe still is for some legal purposes), but is now just AARP.

  4. Sim aberson Says:

    Metrology, not to be (but frequently is) confused with meteorology.

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