Editor’s note: Holden Frith is Deputy Editor, Online, of The Sunday Times.
(CNN) – If beauty is indeed truth, as John Keats claimed, then this story ought to be true: the logo on the back of your iPhone or Mac is a tribute to Alan Turing, the man who laid the foundations for the modern-day computer, pioneered research into artificial intelligence and unlocked German wartime codes.
His death, a decade after the end of the war, provides the link with Apple. Unrecognized for his work, facing jail for gross indecency and humiliated by estrogen injections intended to ‘cure’ his homosexuality, he bit into an apple he had laced with cyanide. He died in obscurity on June 7, 1954, 10 years and a day after the Normandy landings, which made copious use of intelligence gleaned by his methods.
And so, the story goes, when two Stanford entrepreneurs were looking for a logo for their brand new computer company, they remembered Turing and his contribution to their field. They chose an apple — not a complete apple, but one with a bite taken out of it.
Sadly, the truth is rarely as simple, or beautiful, as we would like. I first researched this story in 2005 and was assured by someone at Apple that it was indeed true. The article struck a chord and several people got in touch to say how pleased or touched they were to hear the story.
A few years laterI mentioned it to another Apple employee, who immediately said that he thought it was a myth. It may have started around the time of the 2001 film about the Bletchley Park code breakers, Enigma, or it may have just resurfaced then. He checked with Apple headquarters, and although they were non-committal, it was clear that that Turing story was not official Apple history.
Other theories were advanced. The apple represented knowledge, as in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, or referenced the falling fruit that led Sir Isaac Newton to the concept of gravity. Supporters of the latter theory note the name of Apple’s handheld PDA, the Newton, but that was more than a decade after the creation of the logo.
Sadly, the evidence now points in a more prosaic direction. In a 2009 interview with CreativeBits, Rob Janoff, the man who drew the logo, reflected on the theories about his work. He dismisses Sir Isaac or the Bible as source material and, while he says he is charmed by the links with the Turing story, he says he was unaware of them at the time.
“I’m afraid it didn’t have a thing to do with it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful urban legend.”
Janoff says that he received no specific brief from Steve Jobs, and although he’s hazy about how he settled on the simple outline of an apple, the reason for the bite is crystal clear: it’s there for scale, he says, so that a small Apple logo still looks like an apple and not a cherry.
It wasn’t long before Janoff discovered the first happy coincidence of his design, when a colleague told him that “bytes” were the foundation stones of computing. The more romantic myth-making would follow soon behind.
I was disappointed when the Turing story was first cast into doubt, but grew to enjoy the uncertainty. Limbo seemed a fitting, even poetic state, for the tale of a man who lived in the shadows. Even his tribute was now floating between life and death, like Snow White after she swallowed her own mythical apple.
I hope that a similar respect for beauty over cold, hard fact lay behind Steve Jobs’ silence on the matter. He could have dismissed the creation myths inspired by his company, but he chose not to. More than most, he appreciated the value of a beautiful story.