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Wednesday, 27 June 2012

My Heroes (36): Alan Turing

This week saw the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing's birth.
This is, ultimately, an extremely sad story. The name of Alan Turing should be as famous as Einstein and Newton and when he died at the age of of 41 in 1954 he should have had a state funeral. All he got was a public apology on behalf of the British government from Gordon Brown as recently as 2009. Read on to find out why.....
Alan Turing
He was an English mathematician, cryptanalyst and war-time codebreaker who had studied at Princeton in the US from 1936 to 1938. During the Second World War when Britain was standing alone against the Axis Powers and near to starvation because German U-boats were destroying Atlantic convoys bringing food to the United Kingdom. Churchill was, secretly, extremely worried. The Germans had invented the Enigma Machine which was a very advanced encoding device through which the submarines received their daily information. Realising that breaking the code was absolutely essential Turing, already known as a brilliant young mathematician, was put in charge of the top-secret 'Hut 8' at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. Thanks to his brilliant efforts the secrets of Enigma were discovered with an almost instant beneficial effect on the safety of Atlantic shipping. What went on at Bletchley Park remained highly secret until long after the end of the war. In fact one of the worlds first electronic computers which used thousands of thermionic valves (tubes) was smashed to pieces after the war. The government presumably must have thought it was too dangerous to be kept going. After all, what possible use could there be for computers in peacetime?
This leads to Turing's other great claim to fame; he is generally recognised as the actual inventor of the electronic computer. Although this may be arguable, he did invent the concepts of a processor and of memory storage using binary code. He never received any public recognition of his heroic actions.
Are you wondering, dear reader, why this might be?

Alan Turing was gay at a time when homosexual practices were criminal in the UK and he had been charged with indecency two years before his death. He died of cyanide poisoning and a half eaten apple was found at his bed-side but it was never tested for poison. This has led to various conspiracy theories. His distraught mother strenuously denied that he had committed suicide and it has been postulated that the manner of his death had been a deliberately ambiguous act to spare his mother' feelings.                                                                                                                      
The late Steve Jobs denied that the half-eaten Apple trademark was a silent tribute to Turing but said "I wish to God that it had been".

It is deeply ironic that a man whose actions helped to saved thousands of lives could not save himself in the society of 1950s Britain.  It is not by chance that Google purchased his papers to donate to the London Science Museum; they know their very existence might not have happened without him.
Leonardo DiCaprio is reportedly due to star as Turing in a new film tentatively titled 'Enigma'. Good casting if he can get the stiff formal 1950's English accent right.
Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, England, secret headquarters of code-breakers during WW11. It is now a museum.


Botanist said...

I guess it's small consolation that his name lives on in such phrases as the "Turing machine" - a mathematical abstraction of digital computing - and the better-known Turing test.

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

Governments choose who they want to be known as heroes. It is good that an actor of such prominence as Leonardo will depict him in a movie.

David said...

Dear bazza,
There was something on the news recently about Turing, and I heard his sad story. In the item it said that he was forced to take hormones for his "condition" of homosexuality. Of course, back then, homosexuality was viewed as some kind of mental disorder, and I thought this just showed the sort of human misery that was inflicted by psychiatry in the past. Fortunately things have changed and Turing's brilliance will forever be remembered.
Very Best Wishes,

bazza said...

Botanist: Hello there, yes I edited that out of this post. Don't know why, possibly because people have short attention spans - present company excluded of course!

bazza said...

SO,AC: Yes Arleen , I think you are correct. I hope that movie gets made - it doesn't always happen.

bazza said...

David: He got some publicity because of his centenary recently. I had already written this post before I knew that. It was serendipity. It's shocking to realise how recently it was viewed as 'criminal' to be gay.
Although I agree his brilliance will always be remembered it may be several generations before he has high profile recognition.
Have a great weekend David!

All Consuming said...

Well said. He was a great man, and it's sad tale. The thing that irks me now is that the government still won't grant him a pardon for his conviction. There is an e-petition here you can sign -

The Guardian wrote this article in Feb this year too -

bazza said...

AC: I signed that petition. Thank you for directing me to it.
You used the same link for the Guardian article so I haven't seen that one yet!
Thanks for your sympathetic comment.

John said...

Hi Bazza,
A man who was treated appallingly by the British Government! I read somewhere that he was chemically castrated, but I could be wrong! What he achieved at the Park shortened the War by years and saved thousands of lives, but as you say he got nothing for it except abuse and a criminal record!
I have played cricket at Bletchley Park, back in the days before it was the museum it is now! I went to school just up the road from the house and was born in Bletchley! Not really a claim to fame, but there you go! ;)

bazza said...

John: That is an impressive claim though! Although I have not been there, I have heard that it is a marvellous museum. I have been pleasantly surprised by all the knowledge and agreement this post has got. I had supposed he was less well known.

rob said...

Very interesting post.

I was amazed when I discovered he had discovered the mathematics behind the apparently random patterns on cowhides......such a pity he didn't live longer.....and of course we will never know how much more he would have contributed.

bazza said...

Hi Rob. You make a very good point about how much more he might have done. He initiated the science of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and made some interesting predictions about it's future.
I didn't know about the random pattern stuff. I'll have to look that up!

Austan said...

Thank you bazza. This is horrible. I've never heard his story before but I'm going to search for more. What an incredible man. I could just cry.

bazza said...

Austan: I'm glad you were moved by this. Maybe if you listen to the music on my next post you might shed some different kind of tears!

Dixie@dcrelief said...

Such a sad and unfair treatment of Mr. Turing. I'll have to read more information about him... interesting.

bazza said...

Dixie: I think more will be written about him as time goes by. Hopefully, if the film gets made, it will raise his profile.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Turing was a pivotal figure in the history of computing, and what happened to him was terrible and very sad: his thinking was so far ahead of his time, but the treatment he received has very much of its time, alas. His story is now in the history books, but it is good that his profile is being raised, by everything from blog posts to movies. Of course, what was achieved at Bletchley Park could not have happened without the valuable and often brilliant contributions of dozens of others, mostly unsung. I knew one Bletchley man, Neil Webster (, who made a significant contribution but was not allowed to publish an account of his work there. It was too sensitive even in the 1980s and has only been made public recently, some 20 years after his death.

bazza said...

Thank you for that link Philip. Neil Webster certainly seems to have been another unsung hero but happily was able to live a full and useful life. I accept your point that the events described here were 'of their time'; that, of course, should be borne in mind with any historical research - even the life of buildings.

THE SNEE said...

Hi Bazza,

This is one of my favorite posts!. Fascinating, brilliant person, mysterious death, intriguing relationship to Steve Jobs, and unbelievable food for thought. Perfect man to be featured in a movie, but I wonder if a movie can truly do him justice?

bazza said...

Hi Rebecca. I can't believe that the movie would not be sympathetic to Turing. I just hope they don't overdo the conspiracy angle. There are those who think he was murdered.
It would be satisfying to believe that Apple's logo was connected to Turing.