No great Genius has ever existed, Aristotle said, without some touch of madness. So we mortals keep a safe distance, drawn by the allure of rare talent but wary of what might go along with it. That is what makes Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest performance–as the brilliant, tortured father of modern computing, Alan Turing, in the new film The Imitation Game–so startling to watch. As in his past portrayals of peerless minds, from Vincent van Gogh to Stephen Hawking to Sherlock Holmes, Cumberbatch captures more than the gifts that made Turing famous; he finds the humanity that makes him familiar.
After seeing the film, I marveled at how little I had heard of Turing’s story: not just his seminal role in the creation of modern computing and artificial intelligence but also the extraordinary drama of England’s Bletchley Park and the part played by his team of mathematicians in cracking the Nazis’ Enigma code. The decrypted intelligence was known as Ultra for its beyond-top-secret value. “It was thanks to Ultra,” Winston Churchill told King George VI, “that we won the war.” Yet the story remained secret for decades, and Turing himself, convicted in 1952 of “gross indecency” for his homosexuality and sentenced to chemical castration, was dead by the age of 41.
I invited one of my TIME predecessors, Walter Isaacson, to explore Turing’s life and legacy as an introduction to our annual Best Inventions package. “One of my goals in writing The Innovators,” Walter says of his new book on the drivers of the digital age, “was to get amazing people like Turing the recognition they deserved. I may have helped a little, but Benedict Cumberbatch has now done that a thousandfold.” Walter uses Turing’s tale to explore the relationship between man and machine, the nature of free will and the possibility that computers might someday become smarter than people.
In selecting the year’s 25 best inventions, we didn’t discover any superhuman electronic brains–but we did find some exhilarating innovations. The magnetic technology of a new kind of hoverboard could be used to help stabilize buildings in earthquakes; 3-D printers can now make everything from candy to cars; and the Mangalyaan, an Indian spacecraft currently in orbit around Mars, cost less to build than the movie Gravity. Who knows how far that technology could go?
And then some inventions are just fun. It fell to editors Dan Macsai and Siobhan O’Connor to sample edible ice cream wrappers. The treats came packed in dry ice and were a muddy beige color. “When we first saw them, Siobhan and I just sat there staring, like, ‘Do we actually have to eat these?'” Macsai recalls. “So we split one and took a bite together–and it was delicious. Like, better than actual ice cream, and healthier too.”
A final note: there were two celebrities at our cover shoot in Los Angeles. There was Cumberbatch, of course. But the other star was an actual Enigma machine. “I studied World War II extensively, especially about the Enigma machine,” says photographer Dan Winters, “and we thought it would be a great prop to have in the shoot.” So we arranged a loan from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., which required white-glove handling by the museum’s Carol Stiglic, who carefully positioned the machine in the set that Winters had built and shipped from his Austin studio.
Nancy Gibbs, EDITOR
This appears in the December 01, 2014 issue of TIME.