From Ones and Zeroes to War Hero
Callum Dinnett talks about Alan Turing, a World War II hero who was abandoned by his country, and is now receiving the credit he deserves.
O n June 7th, 1954, Alan Turing took his own life. Two days before the 65th anniversary of his death, the New York Times has published an obituary for him. He is regarded as an important player in World War II and as a pioneering mathematician, often regarded as the forefather of modern computing.
When he died, in opposition to how is seen now, Turing was seen by some as a criminal, convicted of ‘gross indecency’, essentially being guilty of being homosexual. The New York Times obituary goes into detail on some of his achievements, though these included conceiving of what became known as the universal Turing machine, and could be seen as what has become of modern computers, ‘one machine for all possible tasks’, as described by Andrew Hodges, Turing’s biographer. Turing was also interested in artificial intelligence, even publishing an article on a possible method, which appropriately became known as the Turing Test, to determine whether a computer could trick a human interrogator into believing the computer was itself human.
When he died, in opposition to how he is seen now, Turing was seen by some as a criminal, convicted of ‘gross indecency’, essentially being guilty of being homosexual.
Born in 1912, Turing and his brother were raised by foster parents whilst their birth parents were abroad in India. Described by Hodges as an ‘isolated and autonomous mind’, the young Turing enrolled in a private boarding school in southern England and proceeded to develop an interest in the sciences, almost in contradiction to the education system of the time which was based on the classics.
Of course, an important part of Turing’s life was his work at Bletchley Park. Working for the secret ‘Code and Cypher School’, Turing helped to decode the German Enigma machine. Initially helped by Polish cryptographers and under Turing’s direction, the team at Bletchley was able to develop the Bombe, a machine that mimicked the operations of the Enigma machine to help decode the German’s messages. It is believed that the Second World War would have lasted at least two more years without the work of Turing and those at Bletchley Park.
Whilst the obituary covers Turing’s life in detail, including his time at school, King’s College, and Princeton, it also reminds us of his sexuality, and how he kept it secret until it was discovered in the 1950s when, during an investigation into a robbery, Turing admitted to having a physical relationship with a man named Andrew Murray, after Murray had come forward with information on the thief. Both were charged with gross indecency in 1952, and Turing had to undergo chemical castration, where he was required to take oestrogen to reduce sex drive. His wartime contributions at this point were classified at this point, and so, to when he died in 1954, the mathematician’s reputation was tarnished. As known homosexual men were denied security clearances, Turing was unable to put his skills to use during the Cold War, which some reason left Turing feeling excluded.
It was not until 2009 that the government officially apologised about his treatment, and 2013 that he was pardoned. Despite this, Turing has a strong legacy, leaving a significant impact on mathematics, computing, and history. Alongside his place on the codebreaker’s wall at Bletchley Park, Turing is remembered through the scientific discoveries which now bear his name. the ‘Alan Turing Law’ is an informal term for a law which serves to pardon those who have been convicted under historic legislation against homosexual acts. In addition, he helped save potentially millions of lives with his work to shorten World War 2.
The Times obituary ends with describing Turing in Hodges’ words and using his comment that ‘despite the strength that he showed the world in coping with outrageous fortune, no one could safely have predicted his future course.’ He may have been regarded as a criminal when he died, but to most in this era, Turing will be regarded as a hero.