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Alan Turing named greatest icon of 20th century

Father of the computer, World War Two code breaker and scientific genius Alan Turing was named the greatest icon of the 20th century in the live final of Icons, co-produced by the BBC and The Open University’s Broadcast and Partnerships team.

Turing won the public vote having been pitted against fellow finalists Dr Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Ernest Shackleton, David Bowie, Muhammad Ali and Pablo Picasso.

A profound impact on the 20th century

Wildlife presenter Chris Packham delivered a passionate speech about Turing’s life and legacy. He noted that during his lifetime, Turing was persecuted because of his sexuality, and died by suicide which he said was an “unforgiving tattoo on humanity’s conscious.”

The Open University’s Milton Keynes campus has a building named after Turing, who was based at nearby Bletchley Park during the war effort. Open University Senior Lecturer in Computing, Dr Neil Smith, one of the academic consultants that supported the series, said that Turing had “a profound impact on the 20th century and the world now…he laid the theoretical framework for all computers.”

During the live programme, Chris Packham asked the studio audience to hold up their mobile phones to illustrate the ongoing impact of Turing’s work in developing early computer technologies. “In each of your hands, you hold a little bit of Alan Turing,” he said.

“He’s with us when we wake up, he’s with us when we go to bed at night and he’s with us when we talk to our loved ones. The scientists are the only hope for our future and they are armed with Alan Turing’s legacy.”

Lack of women in final line up

There were no women in the final of Icons, although 12 were shortlisted.

Carol Morris, Professor of Engineering, said: “I’m disappointed but not surprised. It says a lot about the 20th century, that women had to fight really hard to make headway, certainly in the first half of the century. In my category we had Gertrude Bell and Jane Goodall, not names that roll off the tongue for a lot of people like Shackleton. If this happens again in 100 years time there’ll be as many women, if not more, on the shortlist as there are now.”

Dr Simon Rea, Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, had hoped that female sports star Billie Jean King would make the final seven. “It has been an issue that there’s no female on the shortlist to win. Billie Jean would have been such a great addition – her iconic status is based on her fight for equal pay for women.”

Find out more

You can watch the live final of Icons on the BBC iPlayer for a limited period.

Explore fame, reputation and what it means to be an icon with our free learning resources on OpenLearn.

Programme Credits

  • Commissioned for The Open University by Dr Caroline Ogilvie, Head of Broadcast and Partnerships
  • OU Academic Consultants: Dr Richard Jones and Dr Luc-André Brunet (FASS Arts), Dr Neil Smith and Prof Carol Morris (STEM), Simon Rea (WELS, Sport)
  • Lead OU Media Fellow: Dr Chris Williams (FASS)
  • OU Broadcast Project Manager: Amie Nimmo
  • OU Digital Content Producer: Freyja Taylor-Law
  • BBC Commissioning Editors: Tom McDonald & Jack Bootle
  • 72 Films Executive Producers: Cate Hall, Francesca Maudslay & David Glover
  • 72 Films Series Producers and Directors: Peter Sweasey, Elizabeth Dobson, Joe Myerscough, Michael Ogden, Julian Jones, Emma Frank, David Vincent & Stephen Mizelas


About Author

Kath works in the Media Relations team within the Communications Unit at The Open University. She is a skilled communicator with more than 15 years’ experience working in both the public and private sectors. She has a BA (Hons) English and American Literature from University of Warwick and specialises in stories from the Faculty of Social Science, Faculty of Education and Language Studies, BBC programmes, and student stories. In her spare time Kath enjoys touring the country in her hand-painted camper van, Trevor.

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