Seeing as it is still LGBT History Month in the UK (just), I was thrilled to hear that a number of important papers written by the eminent code-breaker, Alan Turing, have been saved for the nation. They were in danger of being sold to a private collector in the US, and the National Heritage Memorial Fund stepped in at the last minute yesterday, after a high profile internet campaign failed to raise enough money to meet the auctioneer’s reserve price. You can read about this and the significance of the papers here.
What you may not know about Alan Turing is that he was also a gay man. I wrote an article about him for the now sadly defunct lesbian magazine, Velvet, in November 2009, after the British Government issued a formal apology to him for making his life such a misery through anti-gay legislation, and ultimately driving him to suicide at the age of 42, at a time when he clearly had so much more to give. I am posting the full article below, in tribute to this great man, who should be considerably more famous than he is.
A Poisoned Apple – The Alan Turing Tragedy
A verdict of Suicide by taking poison while the balance of mind was disturbed was recorded at the inquest at Wilmslow, Cheshire, last night on DR. ALAN MATHISON TURING, F.R.S., of Adlington Road, Wilmslow, who was found dead in bed on Tuesday. Dr. Turing was a reader in mathematics at Manchester University. Mr John Ferrier Turing, a solicitor, of West Road Guildford, Surrey, said that as far as he knew his brother had no worries or financial difficulties. Dr. C.A.K. Bird, a pathologist, who conducted a post-mortem examination, said that death was caused by asphyxia due to cyanide poisoning.
So reads the report of the suicide of one of Britain’s foremost mathematicians and code breakers, taken from The Times, 11th June 1954. This report is as important for what is does not say as what it does. The circumstances surrounding the death of this brilliant man are both tragic and shameful. As a gay man living in a time when male homosexuality was illegal, he was hounded to his death by the very government which had relied on him for its safety less than a decade before.
Alan Mathison Turing was born in June 1912 in London. From the very start, he had a logical and literal mind, and was fascinated by mathematics and the other subjects which surrounded it. His mother did a little sketch of him in 1923, which she sent to the matron at his school, Hazelhurst. It is entitled: “Hockey, or watching the daisies grow.” Alan is seen bending over, his hockey stick firmly anchored behind his back, looking intently at a small crop of daisies in the grass, oblivious to the frenzied game going on around him. A Hazelhurst end-of-term song also singles him out:
Turing’s fond of the football field
For geometric problems the touch lines yield.
When he was sixteen years old, he formed a close romantic friendship with a boy who was in the year above him at school, Christopher Morcom. Morcom was almost certainly not a homosexual himself, but their friendship was very intense. Then something cataclysmic happened. Morcom contracted tuberculosis, and died in 1930, just two years after they had met. Turing was devastated, writing to Morcom’s mother:
It never seems to have occurred to me to make other friends besides Morcom, he made everyone else seem so ordinary.
Morcom became the ideal man in Turing’s head, and no other relationship ever lived up to the one he had with him. He threw himself into his mathematical and scientific studies, and it’s a good thing for us that he did.
In 1936, he published a paper which is now seen as one of the most important in the history of computing. Entitled On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem, the paper hypothesised a machine (nowadays known as the “Turing Machine”) which moved from one state to another using a precise finite set of rules (given by a finite table) and depending on a symbol it read from a tape. All right, I admit, that didn’t make much sense to me when I first read it either! However, if you imagine that the machine is a modern computer, a state is whatever the computer is doing, and the finite set of rules is a computer program, then you can see that this is the first attempt at theorising a modern computer. If you then consider that in Turing’s time, the word computer meant someone, usually a woman, who sat at a table and did mathematical computations, you can see that Turing was the first person to consider that machines might be able to do this for us in the future. He was the first person to imagine that a machine could think.
When war broke out in 1939, Turing immediately began work at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, a place shrouded in secrecy for many years due to the Official Secrets Act, but finally opened to the public in 1992. This forced him to abandon his work on the Turing Machine for the duration of the war, but the work he now began was perhaps the most important of his life.
The biggest problem that the code-breakers were facing at this time was the complicated encoding machine carried by the German Luftwaffe and U-boat crews, known as the Enigma machine. This was a highly sophisticated encoding machine, which required no specialist training to use, looking and working just like a typewriter. It had an incredible combination of rotors and electrical impulses, meaning that for every letter that was typed there were 17,576 different routes it could take before it came out in code at the other end. There was no way of predicting it, and the only cipher in existence was in the hands of the Nazis.
Along with another mathematician, WG Welchman, Turing developed the Bombe, a machine which from late 1940 was decoding all messages sent by Enigma machines from the Luftwaffe. The U-boat machines, however, were much more sophisticated, and required a different approach. Turing relished this sort of challenge, and his years at Bletchley are generally accepted to have been the happiest of his life. By the middle of 1941, Turing, with the help of some captured information and his own statistical approach to the problem, was successfully decoding the Enigma codes from the German U-boats. One of his biographers, David Leavitt (see sources below) writes:
The extent of his contribution to the war effort – of which he never spoke during his lifetime – should not be underestimated, and though it would probably be an exaggeration to say that without Turing the Allies would not have won the war, it is reasonable to suppose that without him it would have taken them several more years to do it.
After the war, Turing happily went back to his work on building the Turing Machine. He continued to work for GCHQ, the Cold War successor to Bletchley Park, as a code-breaker. In his spare time, he studied neurology and physiology, and took up athletics, running a marathon in 1947 in which he came fifth.
The tragic events that led to his death began in 1951. In December of that year, he met a young man. They began a rather unsatisfactory affair, which ended badly, when the man tried to blackmail Turing, as a well-known figure who was homosexual. Turing, who never really understood that his sexuality was unacceptable to anyone, let alone the judicial authorities, went to the police to tell them he was being blackmailed. When he told them why, he was arrested. At his trial in 1952, he is said to have been “unrepentant and unashamed”.
As an important public figure, he was given the choice of either prison (which was the only option available to most convicted homosexuals) or a year’s course of oestrogen injections, which were supposed to neutralise his “unnatural nature”. He chose the latter, and tried to go back to his life.
However, it was not his life anymore. His criminal conviction made him a security risk, his work at GCHQ was abruptly stopped, and he found himself being watched by the security services. Around the time of his arrest, he wrote this poignant verse:
Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines do not think
On 7th June 1954, it is believed that Alan Turing calmly injected an apple with potassium cyanide, took one bite out of it, and died. The constant hounding by the security services, and the betrayal he must have felt by the government he had served so well and willingly during the war, had finally become too much. It is believed that Apple computers later designed their logo of the apple with a bite out of it in homage to this great man, the father of modern computing.
On 10th September 2009, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, issued an official apology to Alan Turing from the British Government, after a petition was set up which achieved nearly 32,000 signatures. In it he stated:
Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear of conviction. I am proud that those days are gone…This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.
The last word, though, must go to a guide at Bletchley Park, which is now a museum dedicated to those code-breakers, and Turing in particular. When David Leavitt visited Bletchley Park whilst doing his research, he mentioned to his guide that he was writing a book about Turing.
She shook her head and said, “What a tragedy. People really didn’t understand about homosexuality in those days.”…
“Did you know him?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she said. “Sometimes he tied string around his waist to keep his trousers up.”
The Man Who Knew Too Much – Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt
Alan Mathison Turing by JJ O’Connor and EF Robertson
Alan Turing: one of the Great Philosophers by Andrew Hodges http://www.turing.org.uk/philosophy/ex12.html
Gordon Brown: I’m proud to say sorry to a real war hero The Telegraph, 10th September 2009