If you’re not familiar with the name Alan Turing, the chances are that you soon will be with the release of the new film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the starring role. Alan Turing holds a unique place in history as being someone who not only one of the greatest minds in history who helped save his country and the free world in WW2 but one whose personal life was mired in secrecy which led to a terrible end for him and a shame to his country and a loss to the world.
Alan Turing was born on 23rd June 1912 in Paddington, London and spent his youth split between time in Hastings and in India where his father worked in the civil service. Even at school his genius was apparent to his schoolmaster as he excelled at both maths and sciences and by the age of 16 he was already extrapolating on the works of Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton. After studying and graduating from Cambridge University, he immediately became a Fellow due to a pioneering paper he wrote. He spent the 1930s studying, lecturing and working in the fields of mathematics and computing which naturally led to him taking up a position in the Government Code and Cypher School, what is today known around the world as GCHQ.
When war was declared Alan Turing became a leading figure in the vital work at Bletchley Park. Nazi Germany used a coded system of communication which allowed military and secret agents to communicate through what is popularly known as the Enigma machine. Prime Minster Churchill realised that breaking this code was vital to the war effort and far-sightedly poured unlimited resources into the project.
Breaking the enigma code was possibly the most top-secret project of WW2 and even people working in neighbouring rooms at Bletchley had no idea of what those next door were doing and everyone knew not to talk about their work.
Alan Turing was known as something of an eccentric and would be known as The Prof. A colleague later remembered how in the first week of June each year he would get a bad attack of hay fever, and he would cycle to the office wearing a service gas mask to keep the pollen off. His bicycle had a fault: the chain would come off at regular intervals. Instead of having it mended he would count the number of times the pedals went round and would get off the bicycle in time to adjust the chain by hand. Another of his eccentricities is that he chained his mug to the radiator pipes to prevent it being stolen.
Turing was also an accomplished runner and would often run the 40 miles from Bletchley to high-level meetings in London and after the war he almost made the 1948 Olympic team.
Through brave work by the Poles early on in the war and a daring mission by the Royal Navy roughly imitated in the Hollywood film U-571 and many years of painstaking work, the team at Bletchley managed to break the code and for the rest of the war successfully decoded so much of the communications that Churchill believed it shortened the length of the war by two years.
Alan Turing worked in Hut 8 and personally took on the challenge of working on the German Navy enigma codes. His work was deemed to important that it remained classified and Top Secret for 70 years.
So successful was the team that in order to avoid arousing German suspicions that the code had been broke, Churchill sacrificed the city of Coventry to a devastating bombing raid. A transmission was intercepted from Germany detailing how and when Coventry was going to be all but wiped off the face of the earth. The RAF could have stopped it but this would have alerted German suspicions and so the city was entirely destroyed by the Luftwaffe, a sacrifice the city made in the cause of freedom.
After the war in 1945, Alan Turing was awarded an OBE by King George VI but his work remained secret and even his colleagues admitted that his great achievements and breakthroughs had gone largely unknown and un-acknowledged.
As you can probably imagine, Alan Turing had a brilliant mind and as a still young man you might wonder why you have not heard much about his later life. After the war, he could have turned his hand to being the worlds leading expert in a number of specialities but he concentrated on his Automatic Computing Engine as well as taking up posts at Cambridge and then Manchester universities. He was the first person to properly quantify what real Artificial Intelligence could be defined as the Turing Test. A real Artificial Intelligence could only be acknowledged if an interrogator couldn’t tell the difference between the responses of the computer and that of an adult. Alan Turing also deduced that the best way to achieve this was not to construct a computer with the abilities of an adult human but to create a child like device which had the capability of learning and growing as a young human would.
In 1948, Turing began working on a computer chess programme but upon its completion 2 years later, the proposed computer was still not powerful enough to run the software and so Alan Turing put the programme into practice where he emulated the computer against humans. Whilst the simulated game was not sufficient to beat other computer scientists, it was sufficient to beat more typical human beings!
In January 1952, Alan Turing stuck up a relationship with Arnold Murray who aged 19 was 20 years his junior. The pair had met in the Oxford Road area of Manchester and they jointly decided to enjoy personal relations with each other. A few days later, Alan Turing’s house was burgled and he went to the police. The resulting investigation brought up the fact that the two men had consented to homosexual behaviour. Turing took the advice to plead guilty to breaking Section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act and was given the choice of imprisonment or a years course of chemical and hormonal treatments to change his behaviour which today would be thought a terribly inhumane and degrading punishment with several negative side effects.
Alan Turing emerged a broken man. As a convicted criminal he lost his privileges and abilities to continue his work on cryptology for the British government and the lucrative projects he had been working on in the United States from which he was now barred.
In fact, he was now considered a security risk, mostly because the Soviet Union had agents who had been ensnaring British and American personnel with homosexual lifestyles and the then recent shock of two Cambridge academics being uncovered as being KGB double agents.
On the 8th June 1954, Alan Turing was discovered dead by his house-keeper. He had died a day earlier from cyanide poisoning with a half eaten apple laying near his body (something which has been rumoured though denied to have inspired the Apple Computers Logo). A Coroner decided it was suicide and on the 12th June, Alan Turing was cremated and his ashes scattered at Woking Crematorium as his father had been before him.
It has been proposed that Alan may have died accidentally due to his casual treatment of chemicals in his experiments or even that he had been murdered. It was his habit to eat half an apple before he went to bed and he would simply discard the remainder for his housekeeper to collect.
It took several years before Alan Turing began to be remembered for his achievements and brilliance rather than his supposed flaws and by the 60’s and 70’s his name was lending itself to studies, institutions and scientific contests. However to the wider public, his name was forgotten. His achievements were partially remembered but his crime and suicide overshadowed this and it was not until societal changes in the 1980’s and 90’s that he became more widely remembered. In truth though it was only in the 21st Century when the country had liberalised further so that the status of gay men became open and irrelevant rather than hidden and shameful that the first moves were made to rehabilitate Alan Turing and then shortly after that to pardon him.
There was a new feeling of appalling shame and disgust that someone who had given so much for his country had been treated so badly and felt forced to commit suicide for what is now a non-issue.
Following a public petition, on 10th September 2009 the Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology for the appalling treatment which had been inflicted upon Alan Turing
Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. 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 and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him … 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.
However due to Turing being convicted of an actual legal offence which at the time he knew was illegal and which the norms of the time demanded he be charged with, it took another few years before he was officially pardoned. Though Parliament had already started debating the issue, the government decided that to speed things up, the ancient Royal Perogative Of Mercy should be applied which the Queen signed off in August 2014. This was only the 4th such time that an official Royal Pardon had been granted since WW2 for someone who had been legally convicted of a crime.
The Imitation Machine opens on October 31st across the U.K.