Celebrating Alan Turing's centenary

Posted on by Mike Evans

The BBC reminds us this morning that this coming Saturday is the centenary of the birth of mathematical genius Alan Turing. The article by Google’s Vint Cerf, is a great tribute to the genius behind modern computing:

His is a story of astounding highs and devastating lows. A story of a genius whose mathematical insights helped save thousands of lives, yet who was unable to save himself from social condemnation, with tragic results. Ultimately though, it’s a story of a legacy that laid the foundations for the modern computer age.

Turing’s achievements were never made public during his lifetime. Indeed, it was not until the late 1970s that the first hints about the rôle of Bletchley Park and Turing began to appear in the press. Successive British governments had imposed a blanket ban on any references to the true story of the success of Bletchley Park and Britain’s pre-eminence in code breaking. Only in 2000 did the government finally declassify the incredible story of Bletchley, Turing, the Colossus and the Bombe.

A direct result of the overblown secrecy was that Britain was denied its place as the birthplace of computing; other, later developments in the USA were for decades considered to be the start of artificial intelligence.

There was another reason behind the reticence in giving Turing his due: as a gay man he was beyond the pale in the 1940s and 1950s. After all, it was well known that homosexuals were deviants who could no nothing useful, least of all help win a war. There would have been outrage, particularly on the Bishops’ bench in the House of Lords, if there had been any accolades for Alan Touring.

Yet Turning made one of the greatest contributions to the success of the Second World War, not on the battle field but in the code-breaking huts of Bletchley Park. Countless thousands of lives were saved by the Allies’ long-term intimate knowledge of the enemy’s plans and movements. In doing so, he fathered the computer and we should all be grateful. 

Turing died in suspicious circumstances, biting into a cyanide-laced Apple, shortly after being convicted of a “homosexual act” and being forced to undergo chemical castration. That was the way a grateful nation treated its unsung hero. While I have little time for conspiracy theories, there is a logical possibility that he was murdered by the security services, worried that his unreliability—after all, all gays were unreliable and subject to blackmail—would lead to public knowledge of his role at Bletchley during the war. 

Bletchley Park, the home of the computer, lies north of London, about 45 miles from my home. I visit several times a year and it never fails to impress. If you have even the smallest interest in technology, go when you can. 

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