On June 23rd 1912, in a non-descript house in London, a young man was born who would go on to shape the very core of how the world operates today. A bold statement, no doubt, but his achievements during what would prove to a short life have had such a stunning effect. That young man was Alan Mathison Turing, whose academic work later formed the building blocks for computer science and artificial intelligence. As a result, he is widely regarded as the father of the computer.
An innovation of that magnitude was almost certain to guarantee Turing a well-deserved place in the annals of history. However his influence extended even further: due to his formidable mathematical abilities, he was recruited to play a key role in the British intelligence’s World War Two code-breaking operations at Bletchley Park. Turing devised various techniques for breaking German codes and was instrumental in the eventual cracking of the Enigma code, a breakthrough that played a vital role in turning the tide of the war against the Nazis.
As if being the mastermind behind a device which runs almost every aspect of our modern lives and playing a pivotal role in helping to win the war wasn’t enough, Turing’s private life unwittingly turned into something of formidable magnitude in its own right. Turing was, at a time when it was still illegal in the United Kingdom, openly homosexual. Despite his amazingly brilliant academic career, no allowance was made for Turing’s sexuality and this was ultimately going to contribute to his early death aged just 41.
In early 1952, during a police investigation into a break-in at Turing’s house, partly abetted by a man he had been in a relationship with, both men were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. Turing was given a choice between going to jail or receiving chemical female hormone treatment, essentially castration through injections. He opted for the latter.
To add insult to injury, Turing had his security clearance revoked as a result of his conviction, meaning that he could no longer carry on working for the Government’s Communications Headquarters. This deprived GCHQ of one of the finest minds in Britain at a time when his considerable talents could have been put to great use in helping to decipher Soviet codes; this was, after all, a time when the Cold War was just kicking into life. There was a great deal of public hysteria at the prospect of Soviet agents using homosexual entrapment to gain an upper hand in espionage.
Just two and a half years later, Alan Turing was found dead at his home in Cheshire by his cleaner. After a post-mortem, the cause of Turing’s death was established to be cyanide poisoning; an apple with a bite taken out of it was found next to his body, although this was never tested for poison. A further inquest into his death determined that he had committed suicide, although this conclusion was questioned by his mother, who believed that the poison had been ingested accidentally as a result of his academic work with dangerous chemicals.
In the years that have followed since Turing’s death, an enormous number of posthumous accolades, dedications, awards and other honours have been bestowed upon him by individuals and organisations from around the world. To list all of them would require an article of virtually immeasurable length, but there are few particularly notable ones worth flagging up:
Time Magazine named Turing in the list of the 100 Most Important People Of The 20th Century, in an article to commemorate the new millennium.
In 2002, Turing was ranked 21st in a BBC pole of the 100 Greatest Britons of all time, voted for in a nationwide poll by the general public.
The Turing Award is given away annually by the Association of Computer Machinery to a person within the technical community whose work is acknowledged by their peers as being the most influential during that particular year. The award is very well-renowned indeed and is considered to be the computing equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
In September 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology for the utterly appalling way in which Turing was treated during the criminal proceedings. The UK legislature has stopped short of issuing a pardon for his conviction, mainly due to the fact that he was not unjustly charged, as the acts he admitted to were illegal at the time, even though they have since been de-criminalised.
The most appropriate way to finish this post is by quoting the words of Gordon Brown, when issuing the aforementioned apology, and Time Magazine when naming Turing in their list of influential people. Brown said: “while Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair… So 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.” Time summed up his overall contribution to the world rather well: “the fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opens a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.”