Alan Turing: 100 Years After His Birth

Instead of my usual “Moment of Zen” this Saturday, I am going to honor Alan Turing, who was born 100 years ago today. As a gay man and a blogger, it is only natural for me to post about Turing today. I’m sure I am joining many bloggers who will celebrate his centenary today. He was a hero of the Second World War, one of history’s great geniuses, and a tragic figure in the quest for GLBT equality. If you go to Google’s homepage today, you will see that the Google Doodle is in honor of Turing and his contribution to computer science.

From the day he was born one hundred years ago today—23 June 1912—Alan Mathison Turing seemed destined to solitude, misunderstanding and persecution.  Alan Turing is a name with which a great many people are familiar, but probably not enough. His name was nearly erased from history sixty years ago, though partially revived in the 1970s.  A highly accomplished mathematician, codebreaker and computer scientist, he has been hailed as a pioneer and hero in the fields of modern computing and sexual politics. And while you might not think that those two subjects necessarily complement each other in true strawberries-and-cream style, both are vital to understanding and appreciating the man who helped crack the Enigma code during World War II (and pretty much invented robots).

Turing’s world was markedly different from the one in which we live today. In fact, much of the technology which we now take for granted can be traced back to him in some way. Ever heard of an algorithm? You can thank Alan Turing for that little gem, who originated the concept in a paper while at Kings College, Cambridge.

Best remembered for his work at Bletchley Park in wartime, Turing devised the electromechanical Bombe, which was able to find settings for the Enigma machine, enabling encrypted German messages to be deciphered – which proved to be an invaluable resouce.

After the war, Turing went on to explore the possibilities of artificial intelligence, publishing papers on the subject and creating the “Turing Test”, which determined whether the responses of an artificial intelligence could be told apart from the responses of a human being.

But Alan’s highly celebrated career was marred and ultimately cut short by a tragic personal life. In January 1952, Turing met a man called Arnold Murray outside a cinema in Manchester. After a lunch date, Turing invited Murray to spend the weekend with him at his house, an invitation which Murray accepted although he did not show up. The pair met again in Manchester the following Monday, when Murray agreed to accompany Turing to the latter’s house. A few weeks later Murray visited Turing’s house again, and apparently spent the night there.

After Murray helped an accomplice to break into his house, Turing reported the crime to the police. During the investigation, Turing acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray. Homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time, and so both were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.

Turing was given a choice between imprisonment or probation conditional on his agreement to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. He accepted chemical castration via injections of stilboestrol, a synthetic estrogen hormone.

Turing’s conviction led to the removal of his security clearance, and barred him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British signals intelligence agency that had evolved from GCCS in 1946. At the time, there was acute public anxiety about spies and homosexual entrapment by Soviet agents, because of the recent exposure of the first two members of the Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, as KGB double agents. Turing was never accused of espionage but, as with all who had worked at Bletchley Park, was prevented from discussing his war work.

Unfortunately, the fact that Turing had helped save countless lives and secure a win for the Allies during the war did not prevent him from becoming utterly ostracized by his government and peers. He was relieved of his security clearance and forbidden from continuing his work at the Government Communications Headquarters. Two years later, Alan Turing was found dead.

On 8 June 1954, Turing’s cleaner found him dead; he had died the previous day. A post-mortem examination established that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. When his body was discovered an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide, it is speculated that this was the means by which a fatal dose was consumed. An inquest determined that he had committed suicide, and he was cremated at Woking Crematorium on 12 June 1954. Turing’s mother argued strenuously that the ingestion was accidental, caused by her son’s careless storage of laboratory chemicals. Biographer Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing may have killed himself in an ambiguous way quite deliberately, to give his mother some plausible deniability.  Hodges and David Leavitt have suggested that Turing was re-enacting a scene from the 1937 film Snow White, his favourite fairy tale, both noting that (in Leavitt’s words) he took “an especially keen pleasure in the scene where the Wicked Queen immerses her apple in the poisonous brew.”

LGBT campaigners are still petitioning for an official pardon of Turing’s indecency charges, although as yet the answer is “no”, with Lord McNally defending the government’s decision by stating that he was rightly prosecuted under the law of the era. But while a pardon may not be immediately forthcoming, John Graham-Cumming did at least succeed in procuring a public apology from then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009.

Brown responded by writing about Turing at length in a piece in the Telegraph, stating: “Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour.” Harder still to believe, as we celebrate all that is great about Britain this year with the Diamond Jubilee and Olympic Games, that a man could suffer so much at the hands of his own country, when it owed him such a debt.

The word “legacy” can be bandied around and overused from time to time, but in this instance it could not be more apt: not just for the debt of thanks we all owe to Alan Turing for his wartime work but also for the opportunity that his life story offers; the opportunity to learn from the mistakes and prejudices of the generations that came before us, and ensure that they are never repeated.

In the words of Gordon Brown: “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.”

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

12 responses to “Alan Turing: 100 Years After His Birth

  • Will

    OK, I yield to nobody in my admiration for Mr. Turing (my father, a bombardier in WWII, may well have benefited by his work), but you have touched a nerve. Western historians are notoriously prejudiced against the Muslim world hand have been at least since the fall of Constantinople in 1453 if not long before. Mr. Turing may have added valuably, even spectacularly, to the development of algorithms, but he was not the inventor. Euclid's work was admired and preserved by the Muslims as they gathered whatever had survived from the Christian destruction of "pagan" libraries and realized the brilliance of the work. The following is from a couple of Wikipedia articles:"The Euclidean algorithm is one of the oldest algorithms still in common use. It appears in Euclid's Elements (c. 300 BC), specifically in Book 7 (Propositions 1–2) and Book 10 (Propositions 2–3). In Book 7, the algorithm is formulated for integers, whereas in Book 10, it is formulated for lengths of line segments. (In modern usage, one would say it was formulated there for real numbers. But lengths, areas, and volumes, represented as real numbers in modern usage, are not measured in the same units and there is no natural unit of length, area, or volume, and the concept of real numbers was unknown at that time.) The latter algorithm is geometrical. The GCD of two lengths a and b corresponds to the greatest length g that measures a and b evenly; in other words, the lengths a and b are both integer multiples of the length g.""The algorithm was probably not discovered by Euclid, who compiled results from earlier mathematicians in his Elements. The mathematician and historian B. L. van der Waerden suggests that Book VII derives from a textbook on number theory written by mathematicians in the school of Pythagoras. The algorithm was probably known by Eudoxus of Cnidus (about 375 BC). The algorithm may even pre-date Eudoxus, judging from the use of the technical term ἀνθυφαίρεσις (anthyphairesis, reciprocal subtraction) in works by Euclid and Aristotle."Centuries later, Euclid's algorithm was discovered independently both in India and in China, primarily to solve Diophantine equations that arise in astronomy and making accurate calendars. In the late fifth century, the Indian mathematician and astronomer Aryabhata described the algorithm as the "pulverizer", perhaps because of its effectiveness in solving Diophantine equations.""In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm Listeni/ˈælɡərɪðəm/ (originating from al-Khwārizmī, the famous Islamic mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī) is a step-by-step procedure for calculations. Algorithms are used for calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning.Continued next comment as this is too long to be in just one.

  • Will

    "Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (Arabic: عَبْدَالله مُحَمَّد بِن مُوسَى اَلْخْوَارِزْمِي‎), earlier transliterated as Algoritmi or Algaurizin, (c. 780, Khwārizm – c. 850) was a Persian mathematician, astronomer and geographer, a scholar in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. The word al-Khwarizmi is pronounced in classical Arabic as Al-Khwarithmi hence the Latin transliteration."In the twelfth century, Latin translations of his work on the Indian numerals introduced the decimal positional number system to the Western world. His Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing presented the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations in Arabic. In Renaissance Europe, he was considered the original inventor of algebra, although we now know that his work is based on older Indian or Greek sources. He revised Ptolemy's Geography and wrote on astronomy and astrology."Some words reflect the importance of al-Khwarizmi's contributions to mathematics. "Algebra" is derived from al-jabr, one of the two operations he used to solve quadratic equations. "Algorism and algorithm stem from Algoritmi, the Latin form of his name. His name is also the origin of (Spanish) guarismo and of (Portuguese) algarismo, both meaning digit."The Muslim contribution to the preservation and massive expansion of Classic Greek and other ancient achievements really needs to be better known and appreciated.

  • JoeBlow

    Will, you are absolutely correct. I admit my ignorance of mathematics, historians are notoriously bad at math. However, as a historian, I am very aware of the contributions of Muslims in preserving Greek math and science. When The Roman Empire was split, the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire became more Greek influenced, and thus the Musli,s preserved that knowledge after conquering the Byzantines while the Germanic tribes destroyed that knowledge after conquering the Western Roman Empire. The Spanish Christians and Jews made great strides in translating much of the Muslim works during the Moorish occupation, but the Muslim contributions are greatly ignored.Turing was no doubt a genius, but much of his work was either derivative or he discovered things that others had already figured out. Even with the founding principles of computers, Turing was using something that Archimedes had done nearly two thousand years before.

  • JoeBlow

    That should have said over two thousand years before, not nearly two thousand.However the point is that Turing made some tremendous advances, expounding on theories and knowledge and using it in a significantly new way that helped usher in the modern world, but because of his homosexuality was persecuted and became largely unknown for many years. I think his contributions are quite significant and should be recognized.

  • Will

    I hope it didn't seem like I was coming down on you like a ton of bricks, but years ago I became aware of the purposeful suppression of knowledge about the Byzantine and Muslim transmission of knowledge and was dazzled by the Muslim contribution to a laundry list of sciences and humanities. As someone who dearly loves history, I try to make others aware while I can.I like this blog very much!

  • Will

    YES! They put him through hell when he should immediately have been knighted and a statue erected. It is a great injustice that his work has only become celebrated not just after his death but after so many barriers to the acceptance of LGBT people have had to be beaten down.

  • JoeBlow

    I didn't think that at all. I had taken a shortcut and had not fully explained about the derivative nature of some of his work, and I am glad that you clarified it. Thank you, and I am glad that you like my blog and continue to read and visit it.

  • silvereagle

    Thanks for posting and for the discussion which follows. I think the signifiance of todays posting is in the fact that a real hero was not recognized as such after he made a statement of truth in response to the question of the police. He was an honest man, and told the truth. For this he was punished and pushed aside in history. The good people do is burried with them, the bad they do lives on forever. He was no exception.

  • fan of casey

    While Turing was not knighted there are three statues erected in his honor — the slate statue at Bletchley Park, the Alan Turing Memorial (him sitting on a bench, holding an apple) in Sackville Park, Manchester, and the towering statue at University of Surrey, Guildford.

  • Jack Scott

    While I must admit that I was not heretofore aware of Turning, I am glad you informed me. What I have long been aware of is the indisputable fact that much of the art, literature, poetry, architecture and fashion we treasure from generation to generation has been the product of the homosexual mind.We, as a people, owe more to the homosexual mind than anyone really imagines. Turning is but one concrete example of this debt.Will, I agree with you that we also owe much to the Muslim culture. I have long known of their contributions to mathematics though adding 2 plus 2 and getting 4 is about the extent of my own mathematical ability.Is there an historical prejudice against Muslims as your suggest? Of course there is, and that is regrettable though I expect one as educated as yourself realizes that the Muslims have been complicit in earning that prejudice. Sunni's hate the Shia and the Shia hate the Sunni's. The western world can no longer cope with a society which treats its women as property and relegates them to second class status. Western minds also rebel against a society that had no code of law but rather sees law as whatever decision religious leaders make concerning a particular event. All of this could not be better at creating prejudice if it had been designed specifically for the purpose.Christianity was once burdened with the same excesses. The Church ruled and many people who were ahead of their time in science, and other areas of human endeavor were burned or otherwise killed by the Church for their trouble. The Reformation broke the power of the Church over law and relegated it to its proper place as the keeper of faith.The Muslim world continues to suffer because, by and large, it has not had a similar Reformation to break the bonds between its law and its faith, making the mosque the keeper of the Muslim faith and establishing an independent judicial system as the keeper of the law.Until such time as Muslims can have more respect and love of each other, whatever their sect, and put faith and law in proper perspective in their culture, they will continue to endure the prejudices of the world's people.Jack Scott

  • fan of casey

    I should add that while Turing was made an OBE – Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, that does not allow him to to become a knight.

  • Muthu Pearl

    nice quote of Alan Turing . Thanks for sharing birthday message this with us.

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