The Tragic Tale of Alan Turing
An e-petition, calling for the pioneer of modern computing, Alan Turing, to be honored with a picture on the £10 note, now has over 10,000 signatures.
Turing invented the machine that helped the allies crack the German navy’s Enigma code, hastening the end of World War II, but not long after his code-breaking, successes, in 1952, he woke up one morning to discover that a number of things around his house were missing. It looked kind of like a burglary. He was missing a shirt, some shoes, an old pair of pants, and other household stuff. So, what did he do? He called the police. The detectives come to his house to speak with him, and as they listen to him, they decide, he’s kind of a curious chap. They let him talk, and they’re like “it’s such a shame that we have to arrest him.” Who? Turing? Why in the world would they arrest Turing?
Because he had implicated himself in a crime. Here’s what happened. The police ask him “who do you think robbed you?” and he suspected an acquaintance of his boyfriend. Yes, his boyfriend. At the time, there was a law in England that criminalized “acts of gross indecency between men in public or private.” Even in the 1950s, Turing was never ashamed of being gay and simply didn’t understand what the big deal was. There were other gay men in England, even many in government, and it’s lost to history whether the arresting officers knew they were incarcerating a war hero who singlehandedly shortened World War II by at least two years and one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
As stated in a 2009 apology by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, “It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd, particularly… given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution.”
The government offered Turing the choice between estrogen treatment, then expected to cure his homosexuality, and prison. Turing elected to remain free and accepted chemical castration, but the hormones made him impotent and caused him to grow breasts. In despair and depression over to the damage of his career caused by the conviction, less than three years later, he committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide.
But the tragic tale of Turing starts much earlier. When he was a young boy in boarding school. Turing was different from other boys, and they made fun of him, taunted and bullied, but he’s not completely unhappy there. He falls in love with another student named Christopher, who was very charming, handsome, very socially smooth, and they bond over science, but it’s an unexpressed and unreturned love. It might have been obvious; Turing was always around Chris, sitting next to him in class, and he and Chris’s mother were close friends throughout Turing’s life, even after Chris died.
Chris died while he was still in school of tuberculosis, and he had kept his illness a secret until, one day, there was just an announcement that he was dead. And it came as a shock to Turing, and the memory lingered. Letters written to Chris, but more telling to Chris’s mother after Chris’ death, say things like “I feel that I shall meet Chris again somewhere and there will be some work for us to do together, as there was for us to do here.”
After Chris’s death, Turing poured his heart and soul into mathematics, creating the machine that could be used to crack the German Enigma code, a code that every member of German high command believed to be uncrackable, given the world’s knowledge of mathematics and computers only a few years earlier. How did he come to this conclusion?
Before the outbreak of the war, while Turing was in college, he developed a theory that became known as a Turing Machine, a machine that could be told to add, subtract, multiply, divide, store data in memory and on hard copies. Future computer scientists were standing on the shoulders of a singular giant when they envisioned punch cards, initiating the computer age.
He devised that the code was generated by a machine, and therefore, a machine could be built that could uncrack the code. Turing and a number of other codebreakers discovered a misstep in the German Enigma code delivery – before they delivered a code across the wire, they would always preface it with a few words. And, especially early in the war, Germans were not very imaginative. They always used phrases like “Heil Hitler” or “Guten Morgen.” It turns out that these phrases reflected encryption keys, easy to translate in some cases, like “HEIL”, that was used as a “seed” for the encryption machine. These ideas were revolutionary, and after the war, he continued pursuing the idea of a thinking machine, forming the basis for all artificial intelligence.
Now a circling e-petition is calling for his representation in Her Majesty’s Treasury due to his heroic and incalculable contributions, calling his life a “ripple-effect” that touches nearly every part of modern society.