Auction Results

Signed Turing maths problem letter makes $88,000


Portrait of Alan Turing

A 3-page letter by tragic code-breaking and computer pioneer Alan Turing has sold at auction for nearly $90,000.

The letter, entitled “Theory of Rebmuns a Suggestion” is a reply from Turing to Lionel March, a mathematics student who wrote a very complex fan letter that reached the great man. It is signed “A. M. Turing”.

March, aged just 17 at the time of writing, had developed a new form of algebra he called Redmun (“number” reversed).

March, a pupil at County Grammar School for Boys in Hove, sent his idea to Frank Roberts at University College London. Roberts passed it to Turing.

Turing, congratulated the young man on his work, telling him he had completed his: “research with imagination and competence and I hope you will find time for more.”

Turing fully engaged with the work of his young corespondent.

He made some criticisms of the mathematics in the work and sent March a problem to solve. “The problem I was suggesting you might try was to find all such ‘group algebras with factors with six base elements’.”

Group theory was vital to Turing’s work during WWII that helped crack the Enigma codes.

It is this work that has elevated Turing’s reputation as a public figure from highly-regarded scientist to national hero. His portrait was on the £50 note released in 2019 and there is a statue of him in Manchester.

After the war Turing helped pioneer the first computers. He took time out to help March though, who recalled that the elder mathematician helped him get into Cambridge.

The letter was written in 1953. A year later, aged 41, Turing took his own life, very probably as the result of the legal persecution he suffered for his homosexuality.

Turing is now a highly collectible historical figure. At the turn of this year, unpublished papers that shed light on his codebreaking work in the 1940s sold at auction for £381,400.

Artefacts related to the Enigma code breaking project are also very valuable. An extremely fine example just sold for $214,079, going nearly $50,000 over its estimate.

This document exceeded its lower estimate of $80,000 to sell for $88,200.

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