The recent movie “The Imitation Game” gave [Alan Turing] some well-deserved fame among non-computer types (although the historical accuracy of that movie is poor, at best; there have been several comparisons between the movie and reality). However, for people in the computer industry, Turing was famous for more than just helping to crack Enigma. His theoretical work on computing led to the Turing machine, which is still an important concept for reasoning about computers in a mathematical way. He also laid the foundation for the stored program computer that we take for granted today.
What’s a Turing Machine?
A Turing machine is deceptively simple and, like many mathematical models, highly impractical. Leading off the inpracticalities, the machine includes an infinite paper tape. There is a head that can read and write any symbol to the tape at some position, and the tape can move to the left or the right. Keep in mind that the head can write a symbol over another symbol, so that’s another practical difficulty, although not an insurmountable one. The other issue is that the symbol can be anything: a letter, a number, a jolly wrencher, or a bunch of dots. Again, not impossible, but difficult to do with practical hardware implementations.