Alan Turing 1912-1954
As you will know I am totally immersed in Computing devices and the Internet. It is no exaggeration to say that without Alan Turing these devices would not exist. He conceived a universal computing machine, based around binary language, the description of which is the basis of all modern computing machines. His Ghost is probably looking over your shoulder now.
His work in cracking the Enigma codes in World War 2 and the effect on the war in the north Atlantic are well documented. Unfortunately, the idea that Turing designed Colossus with Tommy Flowers is erroneous but he did design the Bombe, a mechanical device to work out the Enigma settings. His work in Crypto-analysis was central to Bletchley Park’s wartime success and his cracking of the German Naval codes helped Britain to stop the destruction of supply convoys. This undoubtedly shortened the war. Unfortunately this work and the Colossus machines were deemed top-secret and Britain handed the lead in this field to others. It is possible that we may all be using Colossi had it been developed commercially.
After the war Turing worked on the design of another computer system the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) at the National Physical Laboratory. In 1949 he became Deputy Director of the Computing Laboratory in the university of Manchester Mathematics department, working on software for one of the earliest stored program computers—the Manchester MK1. At this time he developed the Turing test, The idea that a machine imitating a human in a conversation, if it could convince a third-party that it was human, must be deemed intelligent.
In the 1950’s he turned to Mathematical Biology and the occurrence of Fibonacci sequences in flowers. He attempted, long before the discovery of D.N.A., to work out why cells separated in different ways to become different structures. He also wondered why certain animals of similar kinds developed different colouring and patterns. He posited mathematical rules behind these changes, and of course he was right.
However he was doomed by his sexuality. Homosexuality was illegal in the U.K. in the 1950’s. He was burgled by a friend of one of his sexual partners, who got his address from the young man. A watch was taken that had been given to Turing by his father and naturally he wanted it back. In a totally Naïve move he called the police. He openly confessed to sex with the young man when questioned about the burglary and the police must have thought it was Christmas. A high-profile war hero and professor admitting to homosexuality. The burglary was quietly forgotten.
What happened next should stand as one of the most shameful events in British History. This war hero and one of the greatest minds of his age was given a choice, prison or chemical Castration. This involved the injection of female hormones, thus destroying the testosterone in the body, and stopping the sexual urges. It also involved shrinking of the testicles and growth of breasts. I can only imagine the shock to the system this would involve but it also impacted on his intellect. I wonder if he would still be alive if he had chosen prison. He once said he might have enjoyed it given his attraction to men.
At this time there was a paranoia about Gay men, who were seen as a security risk and much of his work with the government was taken from him. He travelled abroad to Greece and Norway, both places popular with homosexuals, no doubt enjoying the more relaxed attitude there. He must have felt that he was trapped in a nightmare but he bore the treatments without complaint. He cannot have failed to see the irony that his war work was against a country which practiced castration of Jews as well as persecution of Homosexuals and the insane. Now he faced the same persecution he fought against with his towering intellect. I also wonder if the treatments mad him fear madness. For whatever reason on 8 June 1954 was found dead of Cyanide poisoning. There was a half eaten apple (How ironic is that?) by his bed though it wasn’t tested for cyanide. The verdict was suicide with the apple being assumed as the means of ingestion.
There have been doubts. This is what Wikipedia says about it:
Philosophy professor Jack Copeland has questioned various aspects of the coroner’s historical verdict, suggesting the alternative explanation of the accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes from an apparatus for gold electroplating spoons, using potassium cyanide to dissolve the gold, which Turing had set up in his tiny spare room. Copeland notes that the autopsy findings were more consistent with inhalation than with ingestion of the poison. Turing also habitually ate an apple before bed, and it was not unusual for it to be discarded half-eaten. In addition, Turing had reportedly borne his legal setbacks and hormone treatment (which had been discontinued a year previously) “with good humour” and had shown no sign of despondency prior to his death, setting down, in fact, a list of tasks he intended to complete upon return to his office after the holiday weekend At the time, Turing’s mother believed that the ingestion was accidental, resulting from her son’s careless storage of laboratory chemicals. Biographer Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing may have arranged the cyanide experiment deliberately, to give his mother some plausible deniability.
Andrew Hodges, and another biographer, David Leavitt, have both suggested that Turing was re-enacting a scene from the Walt Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), 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.
The British Government apologised for his treatment in 2013 but it is poor compensation given that Turing should have been a hero and been decorated by the U.K., not persecuted by it.