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15 Perfectly Safe Things That Were Once Considered Dangerous

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Lead paint in kids' rooms. Smoking. Flammable pajamas. It's easy to name items that are more dangerous than we realized. But some things people once considered dangerous aren't harmful at all. 

1. Dancing

Safety dance? More like deadly dance. In its 1926 article “Death of Girl, 17, Laid to Charleston Dance,” The Washington Post reported on a girl who perished after dancing the Charleston. The paper interviewed the girl's doctor, who blamed her death on the “extreme physical exercise” of this classic dance move, which he said was “particularly dangerous for young women.” 

But potential “inflammation of the peritoneum” wasn't the only thing to be concerned about when flitting across the dance floor. Even the most traditional of dances could do serious damage and lead to all sorts of evil. “The high kick, displaying bare legs and arms of our little girls in the presence of even small boys, cannot honestly be said to tend to beget in those children the highest sense of modesty, purity so greatly prized in our women,” a Dr. Waldron told a local ministerial association in 1925; his remarks were quoted in  The Pittsburgh Courier article “Flays Teaching of Dancing in Public School: ‘Display of Bare Legs is Hurtful’” [PDF]. “The folk dances become the way and door to the dancing school; the dancing school is the feeder to the dance hall and public ball room and these inturn [sic], load to the brothel,” the doctor said. “Statistics show from one-third to two-thirds of the prostitutes in our large cities come from the public dance halls and ballrooms.” 

While few are currently concerned about the risk of death by dancing, there are still associations between promiscuity and certain dance styles. Some schools have rigid rules about what's allowed at school dances—especially when it comes to the distance between partners—and other towns have gone full Footloose, outlawing dancing all together, either for religious reasons, the crime rate at nightclubs, or like one town in Wisconsin, for just a short-lived promotional stunt

2. Competitive Sports (for Girls)

According to 1920s wisdom, if a girl wants to stay desirable and get married, she must refrain from practicing competitive sports. “Too many athletics threaten to rob girls of their chief appeal to men,” warns a Victoria college headmistress in “Says Athletics Harm Girls: English Woman Warns Students Not to Lose Appeal to Men,” an article published in The Washington Post in 1922. “The modern girl is trying to do too much at football,” she continues. “Her charm, balance and poise will all be lost, and her dignity lowered if she endeavors to emulate man too closely.”

Worse still, if she participated in sports in high school, she risked wearing herself out, ruining her chances for future happiness. “Must I continue through my life half enjoying living just because I gave too much of myself to competitive sports, to win a few medals which lie unnoticed and tarnished in a box?” asks a married woman in the 1931 Chicago Daily Tribune article “Competitive Sports are Dangerous for High School Girls.”  

It wasn’t until World War II that women’s competitive sports gained greater acceptance. After women proved their strength by joining the workforce or enrolling in military service, “organizations for women in sport began to increase as sport became more competitive and intercollegiate and interscholastic competition spread.” The Civil Rights movement in conjunction with Second Wave feminism also aided in the growing presence of women’s competitive sports.

3. Licking Stamps

Back in 1916—when snail mail was the norm, and before stamps evolved into stickers—The New York Times warned against the dangers of stamp licking. “Aside from hygienic reasons, it is dangerous to lick postage stamps on the ground that the stamps are bacteria-laden and under favorable conditions might easily convey pathogenic types especially colon, diphtheria, and tubercle bacilli,” said the Philadelphia scientists who conducted the study. 

A mere four years later, J. Diner and G. Horstman—two members of the American Pharmaceutical Association—disproved this theory. A 1920 article in The Boston Daily Globe quoted the study originally printed in American Medicine, saying, “The hygienic reason that people should not lick postage stamps is certainly sound. Nevertheless this practice is scarcely to be construed as a potential danger compared with eating and drinking which are so essential for sustenance but are responsible for a large measure of bacteriological contamination of the oral cavity.”

On that note, Seinfeld fans may wonder whether Susan could have actually died by licking all those cheap wedding invitation envelopes. Thomas P. Connelly, D.D.S., says no. “In general terms, most envelope glue is produced from gum arabic, which comes from tree sap,” he explains in a piece for The Huffington Post in 2011. “It is safe for humans and is also used in some other things we eat (M&Ms, gumdrops, etc.). The glue can also be more petroleum-based, as we can see by this answer from someone in the UK post office. But either way, it would appear that the glue is indeed safe. This goes the same if you ingest it, or if you cut your tongue while licking.”

4. The Color Purple

In the early 1900s, an interior decorator would never choose the color purple. A Boston Globe article from 1903—titled “Dangerous Tints: Some Colors Will Drive a Person Mad if the Eyes Are Continually Looking at Them”—called it "the most dangerous color there is":

If purple walls and a red tinted window surrounded you for a month with no color but purple around you, by the end of that time you would be a mad-man. No matter how strong your brain might be it would not stand the strain, and it is doubtful if you would ever recover your reason.

That wasn't the only color to avoid. Scarlet could push you into a murderous rage, while blue “excites the imagination and gives a craving for music and stagecraft, but it has a reaction that wrecks the nerves.” Meanwhile, “Solitary confinement in a yellow cell … will weaken any system and produce chronic hysteria,” and “sheer dead white, unbroken, will destroy your eyesight.”

But according to color expert Kate Smith, purple has the power to calm the nerves, improve the mood, and even inspire creativity. Why else would Harold choose a purple crayon? 

5. Dungeons and Dragons

D&D came under fire in the 1980s when suicides and murders were loosely linked to the game. A few years ago, Mental_Floss compiled a list of complaints against the fantasy role-playing game, including ones that mention cults, witchcraft, Satan, and murder. 

One mother was concerned by the amount of time and attention her kids and their friends devoted to the game. “They're always planning what they will do the next time. Kids have lost jobs, flunked out of school. They totally confuse reality and fantasy," she said. "It (the game) becomes their god."

6. Hanging onto Straps on Public Transportation

Ladies feeling under the weather in 1912 could blame public transportation. Not because there were germs lingering on the poles, or floating through the crowded street car, but because holding on to the straps—now replaced with rods—was “a frightful strain upon [your] internal organs,” according to the unnamed but "prominent" physician interviewed in 1912 for the Chicago Daily Tribune‘s “Strap Hanging Dangerous for Women.” According to the physician, "Women do not have the strong shoulder muscles that men possess, and while men use only their arm and shoulder muscles to steady themselves, women are obliged to use all the muscles in their bodies for the same purpose.” 

Lillian Russell, the author of the piece, even made it a political issue, saying, “It is high time that women were granted the rights of suffrage, for without suffrage they have neither seats in the cars nor the votes to protect themselves against such a horde of so-called men.”

Hanging on straps might no longer be considered dangerous for ladies, but seating on public transportation can still be a contentious and gendered issue. At least there are taxis.   

7. Where's Waldo? and other children's books

It’s hard to find Waldo among the crowded pages of a Where’s Waldo? book, let alone notice every detail hidden among the illustration. But once a kid in Long Island found a woman’s partially exposed breast on the beach page in the first book of the series, chaos—in the form of overly-concerned parents—ensued. The woman's breast, described as “about the size of the lead tip of a pencil,” caused the book to be banned from that town's school library in 1993. Other children’s books that have been pulled from the shelves include A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig, and—in an unfortunate mix upBrown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr.

8. Gum

Your mother might have told you never to swallow your gum because it would stick in your gut for 7 years. That might be a good way to scare a child into throwing their chewed gum in the trash, but this claim is entirely false. Yes, the gum isn’t broken down like other food, but it’ll still pass through your digestive system at a normal rate. That being said, it’s still not a great thing to do.

9. Sitting Too Close to the TV

Before TVs had flat screens, hundreds of channels, and crystal clear imaging, they were clunky and emitted radiation that could potentially worsen the viewer’s eyesight after prolonged exposure. However, in 1967, a “factory error” caused some defective General Electric televisions to emit 10 to 100,000 times the amount of radiation health officials deemed acceptable. GE recalled the TVs and updated their new models with a leaded glass shield surrounding the tubes inside the television to solve the problem.

Radiation isn’t something to worry about anymore, but you can still strain your eyes if you spend too much time staring at a screen—so with our iPhones and our computers and all of our other devices, television is the least of our problems. 

10. The Tomato

Paired with the wrong platter, a tomato had the power to kill. When European aristocrats became sick and died after eating tomatoes, the fruit was dubbed the “poison apple.” It was later discovered that the tomato itself wasn't deadly—but its high acidity caused it to “leach lead” from the pewter plate, resulting in lead poisoning. But the tomato’s reputation was set.

The tomato’s sad tale continued when the Green Tomato Worm invaded tomato patches across New York in the 1830s. Personal accounts of encounters with the worms resulted in rumors about how poisonous they were. It was believed that Ralph Waldo Emerson thought they were “an object of much terror, it being currently regarded as poisonous and imparting a poisonous quality to the fruit if it should chance to crawl upon it." The worm turned out to be totally harmless, people’s fears eventually subsided—and the tomato became a garden and salad staple.

11. Tea

In the 19th century, if an Irish peasant woman were drinking tea, it meant something else was being put on the back burner—something far more important, like her domestic duties. According to Dr. Helen O’Connell, a lecturer at Durham University, and author of “'A Raking Pot of Tea’: Consumption and Excess in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland,” published in Literature and History journal, “Drinking tea was thought to threaten traditional ways.” A tea break among women could lead to them plotting a rebellion or engaging in political discussion, and publicly distributed pamphlets warned against the dangers of the drink. Now we just consider it a nice alternative to coffee, which was also once considered dangerous

12. Clothes

“If the doctors are to be believed, the wearing of clothes is more dangerous to human life than their utter absence would be,” wrote the authors of the 1901 Boston Daily Globe article “Don’t Wear Clothes: That is, if You Would be Entirely Healthy…"  The British doctors who were consulted for the piece advised against wearing cotton and linen as well as garters and waistcoats, which they argued “are a permanent menace to life and health.”

Their reasoning is partially accurate—the body does breathe through both the lungs and the skin (despite what all of those internet myth sites will tell you), and there are some fabrics that are less “breathable” than others—but “nonporous clothing” isn’t quite as “disastrous” as they seem to have thought. 

Today, we know that cotton is one of the better fabric options available to us; some synthetic materials can cause rashes and skin irritation. However, there have been recent articles about the danger of some clothes—not because their “clammy surface ... imparts any variety of cold, up to and including pneumonia,” but because some dyes include toxins as a result of polluted water near the factories [PDF].

13. Writing Letters

Just a glance at a person's tweets, blog posts, and status updates can be enough to tell you everything there is to know about their problems. But oversharing isn’t a new epidemic caused by the Internet. In 1898, Amelia E. Barr wrote a chapter called “Dangerous Letter Writing” in her book Maids Wives and Bachelors in which she said “Young women are proverbially fond of playing with edged tools ... And of all such dangerous playthings a habit of promiscuous, careless letter-writing is the worst; for in most cases the danger is not obvious at the time, and the writer may even have forgotten her imprudence when she has to meet the consequences.” Barr credits cheaper postage for the impulsive way girls wrote overly sentimental letters and sent them off immediately.

In a highly prescient passage, she writes,

The abuse of letter-writing is one of the greatest trials of the epoch ... Every one cries out, and insists upon your listening. They write events while they are only happening. People unknown intrude upon your time and take possession of it. Enmities and friendships thousands of miles away scold or caress … For a mere nothing—a yes, or a no—idle, gushing people fire off continual notes and insist upon answers.

Letter writing may no longer be considered dangerous, but thanks to cell phones, computers, and all other communication enabled gadgetry, it's definitely still a nuisance. 

14. Public Toilets

Are you a hoverer or a toilet seat cover user? There's very little need to be putting in that extra effort when using a public restroom, because despite what you might have heard, it's impossible to contract a sexually transmitted disease just by sitting on a toilet. 

Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science and health reporter at The New York Times, attributes the fear of contracting a venereal disease from the toilet seat to an age old excuse. In response to a reader's question about the dangers of toilet seats, he explained that the STD myth was probably a result of cheating partners refusing to admit their infidelity when their partners angrily ask them about why he or she "suddenly has symptoms of syphilis, gonorrhea, pubic lice, or any other unpleasantry." Instead of coming clean, the unfaithful partner can easily say “I have no idea, dear—I must have gotten it from a toilet seat..." and then move on without an argument. 

Non-sexually transmitted diseases like various flesh-eating bacteria, the norovirus, or E. Coli are carried through vomit or feces, both of which are visible and thus avoidable. And far as other germs go, as long as the skin on your rear end and thighs is fully intact—thick skin works as a barrier—there's almost nothing to be worried about. 

That's not to say that there aren't germs on a toilet seat—in fact, there's an average of 50 bacteria per square inch on one's surface—but compared to a cutting board, a kitchen sponge, or your cell phone, toilet seats are cleaner. Just something to think about the next time you stick your iPhone next to your pillow. 

15. Air conditioning

The invention and subsequent increase in accessibility and affordability of air conditioning in the 1920s and '30s brought a general sigh of relief to homeowners and office workers used to sweating through the summer months. But in Washington D.C., some government officials didn’t give the new technological addition to the Senate chamber such a warm welcome. In May 1929, John E. Rankin, a Democrat from Mississippi, filed a complaint about the chilly air temperature in the chamber, saying, "This is regular Republican atmosphere, and it is enough to kill anybody if it continues." 

Rankin was wrong. In fact, according to a 2013 study, since 1960, air conditioning has cut heat-related deaths by 80 percent. "The likelihood of a premature death on an extremely hot day between 1929 and 1959 was 2.5 percent," and has since dropped to less than 0.5 percent.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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