15 Fun Facts About The Baby-sitters Club

In 1986, Scholastic published the first Baby-sitters Club book, Kristy’s Big Idea. Before long, the books were hitting bestsellers lists, and what started as a four-part miniseries would eventually grow to 218 books, including 131 regular series novels, 15 super specials, 36 mystery books, four super mysteries, a series of portrait collection books, and spin-off series including California Diaries (15 books) and Baby-sitters Little Sisters (128 books). By the series end in 2000, 176 million copies of Baby-sitters Club books had been sold—which, if stacked on top of each other, would equal 77,203 Empire State Buildings. Here are a few things you might not have known about the hugely popular series, which didn’t just turn kids into readers—it also turned them into babysitters when they created their own real-life clubs.

1. SCHOLASTIC EDITOR JEAN FEIWEL CAME UP WITH THE IDEA AND THE TITLE—AND HIRED ANN M. MARTIN.

When Fiewel joined Scholastic in 1983, she was put in charge of the publisher’s preteen and young adult book clubs. The idea for Baby-sitters Club came when Fiewel noticed that a book called Ginny’s Babysitting Job was a top-seller month after month, despite having “a rotten cover” and being buried on the third or fourth page of the book club's catalog. “I thought, it must be something about baby-sitting because it’s not something about Ginny or the cover,” Fiewel said.

The editor then approached Ann M. Martin—whom she had briefly worked with at Scholastic before Martin left to become a freelance writer—with the idea and the series’ title. “All I gave Ann was just a glimmer of an idea—a series about a babysitters club,” Fiewel told Publisher’s Weekly in 2010. “She came up with everything else.”

2. MARTIN DREW FROM HER OWN FRIENDSHIPS AND EXPERIENCES TO WRITE THE BOOKS.

“First, I had to decide exactly what a babysitters club might be and I decided that it would be a babysitting business,” Martin told Glamour’s Smitten in 2010. “And then I created the four original main characters.” The author, who not long before had been a teacher for a year, said that experience was foremost in her mind: “I was also thinking of the kids in my classroom who came from really different kinds of backgrounds. I remember at the time being struck by how many came from families in which the parents were divorced or a lot of blended families. And this was just a pretty typical classroom in Connecticut.”

Princeton, New Jersey, where Martin grew up, was the inspiration for BSC’s Stoneybrook, Connecticut, and when it came time to create her characters, Martin drew on her own friendships: Mary Anne and Kristy were based on the author and her best friend Beth, respectively, when they were growing up. “We started a number of clubs and they were all her idea,” Martin told The Washington Post in 1995. “They lasted for about two days, but it was like the old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies: ‘Hey, let’s start a club.’ We’d meet in Beth’s bedroom, eat cookies and then go home.”

Claudia, meanwhile, was named after Martin’s friend Claudia Werner. She also wrote her goddaughters into the books—you might know them as the Perkins girls, frequent charges of the BSC: “As adults, they tell me that it's a lot of fun for them to look back and read about the characters that were inspired by them,” Martin said in an interview with Scholastic.

Martin spent a lot of time babysitting in her youth, but that wasn’t the only thing she used for inspiration: Her childhood desire to find a secret passageway in her house (which was designed and constructed by her parents just five years before they moved in) inspired The Ghost at Dawn’s House, while summer vacations on the Jersey Shore—and in Surf City, Avalon, Stone Harbor, and Cape May in particular—inspired Sea City, New Jersey, the fictional town where members of the BSC enjoyed summer adventures in Boy Crazy Stacey.

One thing Martin never used as inspiration: The thousands of ideas that were sent to her by fans, which all tended to be too dramatic for the series.

3. BABY-SITTER’S CLUB WAS INITIALLY SUPPOSED TO BE A FOUR-BOOK MINISERIES.

The idea was that each book would focus on one of the four original characters—Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, and Stacey—and have a run of 30,000 copies. The first, Kristy’s Big Idea, debuted in August 1986 in bookstores and in book clubs; it quickly sold out of its initial run, then sold an additional 120,000 copies. The other books also did well—so well that Scholastic requested another two BSC novels with initial runs of 100,000 copies; starting with BSC #7, Kristy Saves the Day, the books were printed in runs of 250,000 (it would one day become the first children’s book to appear on the USA Today Bestseller List) and were soon being published at the rate of one a month.

Baby-sitter’s Club was a hit, and it was no wonder it resonated with young girls: The books focused on issues and topics they would find relatable. Things like divorce, the death of a pet, sibling rivalry, disabilities, cancer, racism, eating disorders, learning disorders, the death of a friend, and sexism were all fair game. Drugs and sex were not, however. “I think these topics are a little heavy for younger readers,” Martin told Time in 1991. (More mature issues like alcoholism and abusive relationships were explored in the Dawn-centric spin-off California Diaries.)

4. THE COVERS WERE PAINTED BY HODGES SOILEAU—AND ONE FEATURED KIRSTEN DUNST.

Soileau, who now teaches part-time at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, painted covers for more than 300 books in various genres, including beloved series like The Boxcar Children as well as Harlequin romance novels. For the BSC covers, he worked from photographs of models—one of whom was a young Kirsten Dunst on her very first job. “My first cover was a book in the Baby-sitters Club series, Claudia Gets a Phantom Phone Calls,” Dunst told Parade in 2008.

5. THE HANDWRITTEN PORTIONS OF THE BSC BOOKS WERE ALL CREATED BY ONE EMPLOYEE.

Each BSC book focuses on a different character and features handwritten passages—and though each may have looked as unique as the BSC member it belonged to, they all actually came from one hand: “The handwriting for the girls—all of them!—was done by one person in Scholastic's art department,” Martin said.

6. AT THE BEGINNING, MARTIN WROTE ALL OF THE BOOKS HERSELF …

When Baby-sitters Club debuted, Martin was writing each of the books herself at the rate of one a month. She had a routine: Each morning she’d wake up early, then write longhand on yellow legal pads from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Soon, Scholastic added a spin-off series to her load: Baby-sitters Little Sisters, which she also had to write at the rate of one a month. And her workload continued to grow: In 1995, Martin told The Washington Post that “I’m responsible for 12 Baby-sitters Club books a year. Twelve Little Sisters books, six mysteries, and about four Ms. Coleman books [another BSC spin-off], and two or three other titles. … It totals over 30 books a year. I don’t even think Stephen King could do it.”

7. … BUT A MULTITUDE OF SPIN-OFFS EVENTUALLY MEANT HIRING GHOSTWRITERS.

When the workload became too great for Martin, she and Scholastic opted to hire ghostwriters—a small group of writers that Martin and her editors had worked with before, including Ellen Miles, Peter Lerangis, and Nola Thacker. “I almost didn’t have a choice, because there is no way I could have written all of those books myself!” Martin told CNN in 2014. “Each of the authors had to read all of the books in the series up to the point from which they would be writing so they would have the background.” (It’s easy to tell if a book has been ghostwritten: Look for an acknowledgments page that thanked the ghostwriter for “help in preparing this manuscript” or “help in writing this book.”)

But just because the books were ghostwritten doesn’t mean Martin had stepped away entirely: She outlined the plot for each book (“I am a huge outliner. I outline everything,” she told CNN) and edited them as they came in. “I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I had been an editor before I became a full-time writer, so this was like putting my editorial hat back on.”

To keep consistency, the editorial team created a BSC “bible” full of details like each character's eye color, hobbies, and habits. The bible was overseen by David Levithan, then a 19-year-old intern who would go on to become Scholastic’s editorial director. “I was the guy on the subway not only reading BSC, I was reading it with a highlighter to keep track of who spoke French, who had green eyes, and so on,” he told The Wire. The bible would go on to be published as a book of its own: The Complete Guide to the Baby-sitters Club.

8. THE HARDEST BOOK FOR MARTIN TO WRITE WAS CLAUDIA AND THE SAD GOODBYE.

The book, which deals with the death of Claudia’s grandmother, was written shortly after Martin lost her own grandmother. “There was a lot of me in the book,” she told Life in 2002.

Claudia’s uber-fashionable outfits, incidentally, were sourced from clothing catalogs, magazines, and what kids were wearing on TV.

9. READING ABOUT STACEY’S DIABETES HELPED SOME READERS DIAGNOSE THEMSELVES.

Martin, who gave Stacey diabetes after two of her friends were diagnosed with the condition, told Entertainment Weekly in 2012, “It never occurred to me that after I wrote this book [The Truth About Stacey] I would hear from so many readers who actually recognized the warning signs of diabetes and diagnosed themselves based on Stacey’s story.”

The author’s descriptions of diabetes helped in other ways, too. As one commenter wrote on Martin’s Facebook page, “I have to admit that a lot of what you wrote about Stacey's diabetes really helped me tremendously when I took Anatomy and Physiology recently. :) The descriptions you wrote about the disease were very accurate.”

10. WHEN STACEY WAS WRITTEN OUT OF THE SERIES, FANS FREAKED OUT.

In BCS #13, Good-bye, Stacey, Good-bye, Stacey heads back to New York City. “I thought it was reasonable that in a group of friends the size of the Baby-sitters Club, one member might move away at some point,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly. “Since Stacey hadn’t grown up in Stoneybrook, I thought it made sense that she might have to move back to New York City.”

But at that time, Stacey was BSC’s most popular character, and fans were not pleased: “BIG MISTAKE! Stacey’s huge fan base let it be known that they wanted her back in Stoneybrook asap!” Martin wrote on her Facebook page. Stacey had her homecoming in BSC #28, Welcome Back, Stacey!

11. JOHN GREEN IS A FAN.

Boys were BSC fans, too—including author John Green. He wrote in the September/October addition of The Horn Book Magazine that, when he was around 10, he started to hate the Hardy Boys—not the books, but the characters. “They were vapid and preppy and struck me as entirely too popular,” he wrote. “The Hardy boys were never lonely or inexplicably sad. They got scared sometimes, but only because the cave was dark. Every 10-year-old worth his or her salt knows that caves aren't nearly as terrifying as people.” But Green found what he was looking for in BSC:

“I found the Baby-sitters Club, and I was in love. I was in love with Stacey, of course, because she was awesome and cute and industrious and also vulnerable and prone to getting herself into the kind of trouble that one does not often find in caves. But I was also in love with the books. The BSC offered me characters whose conflicts were like my own, or at least relevant to my own: they experienced interpersonal conflict, and even internal conflict. If I may paraphrase Faulkner when talking about the Baby-sitters Club: for me, at least, Stacey's griefs grieved on universal bones.”

That devotion lasted into his college years. During a fight with a college girlfriend, Green retreated to her family’s guest room, where he found her old BSC books. “I spent an hour reading Claudia and the Sad Goodbye, and by the time I reached its end, I felt much better,” he wrote. “I was nineteen years old. By then, I needed more from books than the BSC could provide—but what they could provide, I still needed.”

12. THERE WAS A BABY-SITTERS CLUB TV SERIES ON HBO …

When Scholastic wanted to create a BSC TV show, they first approached the networks, where the publisher hit an unexpected roadblock: No one thought a TV show aimed at girls would be successful. One network suggested making the show a cartoon, and others discussed adding more boy characters before giving the go-ahead, but Scholastic dismissed those options. Instead, the publisher created two straight-to-VHS specials themselves.

Finding young actors that matched the characters in the books was no easy task. “We saw 500 girls because we were looking for very specific physical characteristics,” Deborah Forte, then VP at Scholastic, told the Philadelphia Enquirer in 1992. “And they had to act, too.”

The videos were a surprise success: A million cassettes were sold for $12.95 each and based on that, HBO picked up the series: Thirteen half-hour episodes ran throughout 1991. The episodes later aired on the Disney Channel, and you can watch them today on Hulu, YouTube, and Amazon.

13. … AND A MOVIE.

Just a few years later, Columbia Pictures released The Baby-sitters Club movie, which starred Schuyler Fisk as Kristy, Rachel Leigh Cook as Mary Anne, Larisa Oleynik as Dawn, and Bre Blair as Stacey. Scholastic co-produced the film and was involved heavily in the production. Jane Startz, executive vice president of Scholastic Productions, helped to hire a screenwriter, took part in script revisions, and hung out on set. “Scholastic wanted to make sure The Baby-sitters Club movie would have the same feel as the books,” director Melanie Mayron told the Los Angeles Times. “[Jane] was like a partner and I was grateful to have her … she’d point to [one of the characters] and say, ‘She wouldn’t do that.’”

Martin, too, worked on the film, helping to create the plot and weighing in on the script when necessary. “I was involved from the very beginning, talking to producers and working on the general idea for the plot,” she told Publisher’s Weekly in 1995. “I saw the script through its many, many stages. I’ve seen the movie twice now and am very pleased with it.” The movie, which had a budget of $6.5 million, made a little under $10 million domestically.

14. WHEN MARTIN WROTE A PREQUEL IN 2010, SCHOLASTIC REISSUED THE FIRST SEVEN BOOKS—WITH A FEW CHANGES.

By 2009, all of the Baby-sitters Club titles were out of print. In 2010, Martin released a prequel to the events of BSC called The Summer Before. “It was fun to explore their lives in the prequel,” Martin told Amazon, “and to figure out what led the girls to form the Baby-sitters Club, something that would eventually change their lives. It was like a reunion with friendsfriends who haven’t changed a bit.”

To celebrate the prequel, Scholastic released the first seven books in the series with new covers and important updates: References to outdated technology like Walkmans were removed; Stacey’s perm was replaced by an “expensive haircut.” But they didn’t go all out. “We felt if we set ourselves going down the road of cell phones it would have been crazy, so we didn’t do that, but we updated stuff about Stacey’s diabetes, and we got rid of stuff like VCRs,” Martin told Elle.

15. MARTIN HAS SOME IDEAS ABOUT WHERE THE BSC GIRLS ENDED UP.

The author often gets asked about what her characters are doing now, and though she doesn’t have any hard answers, she is willing to speculate. She told The Washington Post in 2010 that Kristy is likely a politician or a CEO, while Mary Anne decided to become a teacher; Stacey works in fashion and business and Claudia in art (obviously). Jessi is a dancer, and Dawn is a permanent California girl—but Martin isn’t sure what Mallory would be up to. Maybe, she speculated, she would go on to write a series of books for children.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
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.)

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER