People in History: Alan Turing

Alan_Turing_Aged_16 People in History: Alan Turing

Alan Turing at 16

Alan Turing was born in 1912, second child of Julius and Ethel. His father held a position with the India Civil Service, but his parents returned to England before Alan’s birth, keen for their sons to be raised in England. When his parents needed to return to India, they left the boys in the care of a retired army couple during their absences.

Turing’s extraordinary intelligence showed itself early, as did his enthusiasm for learning. When, at thirteen, a general strike was called on the day he was to start at a new school, he cycled sixty miles unaccompanied in order to attend on time. The school, however, placed greater emphasis on Classical learning than the sciences, and the headmaster wrote to his parents, warning: ” If he is to stay at public [private] school, he must aim at becoming educated. If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a public school.”

Undaunted, Turing continued pursuing his passions, despite lacking almost any official education in the subjects he loved best (he was able, at fifteen, to solve complex mathematical problems without ever being taught calculus).

At school he befriended another pupil, Christopher Morcom, said to have been his first love. Morcom encouraged Turing’s love of mathematics and science, and broadened his interests to include subjects such as astronomy, his own passion. Sadly, their friendship was cut short as Morcom died of tuberculosis when Turing was seventeen.

I am sure I could not have found anywhere another companion so brilliant and yet so charming and unconceited. I regarded my interest in my work, and in such things as astronomy (to which he introduced me) as something to be shared with him and I think he felt a little the same about me… I know I must put as much energy if not as much interest into my work as if he were alive, because that is what he would like me to do.

— Turing. a letter to Morcom’s mother

After school, Turing attended Cambridge, graduating with a first class degree in mathematics. The following year, he was elected fellow at King’s College (his alma mater). By the mid-1930s, he was already considering the mathematical possibility of a computing machine. His hypothetical device, the Turing Machine, was simpler and more accurate than anything else that had been posited by mathematicians at that time. Its brilliance is evidenced by the fact a Turing Machine can simulate the logic of any computer algorithm, and nearly all programming languages used today are “Turing complete” (that is, they are theoretically capable of expressing all tasks accomplishable by computers). The central concept which gave birth to modern computers can trace its roots back to that single paper of Turing’s from 1937.

In June 1938, Turing graduated with a PhD from Princeton; where he had studied cryptology along with mathematics. It was an education he was to put to good use at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

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The intelligence huts at Bletchley Park

Turing began work for the British government a year prior the outbreak of war: just three months after graduating from Princeton, he took a position at the Government Code and Cyper School (GC&CS), concentrating immediately on Enigma, the code-generating machine through which all the key German transmissions were sent. While at Bletchley (where he reported on the day after war was declared), he wrote two papers discussing mathematical approaches to cryptography that were considered so valuable to GC&CS that they weren’t declassified until 2012.

Along with his brilliance, Turing exhibited the sort of reassuring quirkiness one expects from the remarkably intelligent. He cycled everywhere on a bike with a broken chain: rather than fix it, he would count the pedal turns until it would fall off, then stop to secure it before it broke again. During the summer, to ward off hay fever, he took to wearing his gas mask on his way to the office. A talented long-distance runner (he tried out for the 1948 Olympic team), he would often run the forty miles to London from Bletchley when his presence was required in the capital.

After the war, Turing moved to London, joining the National Physical Laboratory to work on the design of an Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). After two years, disillusioned with delays caused by the classification of the work he’d done at Bletchley, he returned to Cambridge for a sabbatical. A pilot ACE was built in his absence, although it wouldn’t execute its first programme for another two years, and a complete version of the machine Turing designed wouldn’t be built until after his death. Nonetheless, ACE was a significant step towards the creation of the modern computer.

In 1948, Turing took up a position in the Mathematics Faculty at the University of Manchester. In 1949 he became Deputy Director of the Computing Laboratory, working on software formula for the Manchester Mark 1, one of the earliest stored-program computers in the world. (Nerdgasm: Manchester is my own alma mater, and I was lucky enough to attend lectures in the very room where Turing worked on Mark 1.)

Turing also concentrated on more abstract maths during this period, specifically in relation to artificial intelligence. His Turing Test, to evaluate how well a computer can simulate human interaction, is still in use today. (Turing, for the record, believed computers were — at least hypothetically — capable of thinking for themselves.) The most interesting, although with hindsight, logical, suggestion Turing made was that a thinking computer would be easier to create if one built a computer which simulated a child’s mind, and then educated it. A reverse Turing Test is widely used today to confirm when online interactions are occurring with people: I’m talking, of course, about CAPTCHA.

Manchester_Mark2 People in History: Alan Turing

Manchester Mark 2

In 1948, in an extraordinary show of his genius, Turing wrote the software code for a chess game no existing computer had the capability to run. The game was designed to work with a computer that had yet to be invented. In the same year, Turing invented something called the LU Decomposition Method. I don’t pretend to understand it, but it has something to do with solving Matrixes. It seems the man fathered the computer, taught it to think for itself, and provided the means by which we could destroy them once they grew too powerful 😛

From artificial life, Turing turned his attention to biology, coming up with a mathematical theorem which subsequent experiments have shown can explain the growth of feathers, hair follicles, the branching pattern of lungs — even why the heart is located on the left side of the chest. This before we even understood the structure of DNA.

What most people know Turing for, however, isn’t his theories on life, artificial or otherwise, but for what he did in his personal life. In January 1952, Turing began a relationship with a man twenty years his junior, whom he had met outside a cinema on Manchester’s Oxford Road. A month into the relationship, Turing’s house was burglarised, and his lover, Arnold Murray, admitted the culprit was known to him. Turing called the police, and during the course of their questioning, admitted his relationship with Murray. Both men were immediately arrested and charged with gross indecency.

The case came to trial on 31st March 1952, and Turing, under advice from his solicitor, plead guilty. He was given a choice between imprisonment and a year’s hormone therapy. He chose the latter. Murrary was given a conditional discharge.

The conviction and sentence destroyed Turing’s life. His security clearance was revoked, he was prohibited from consulting with GCHQ, the British intelligence agency which had grown out of GC&CS, and he was subsequently denied entry to America. Meanwhile, the oestrogen treatment he’d been ordered to take left him impotent and caused him to grow breasts.

Alan_Turing_Memorial_Closer People in History: Alan Turing

Alan Turing memorial in Sackville Park, Manchester

Turing’s housekeeper found his body on 8th June 1954, and a post mortem revealed the cause to be cyanide poisoning. A half-eaten apple had been found beside his body, and the narrative verdict of the coroner recorded he dosed the apple with cyanide and ate it. While others have speculated that he could have inhaled the cyanide accidentally from an apparatus he’d set up in his spare room to conduct experiments, his official biographers have discredited the theory as wishful thinking, even suggesting Turing set up the apparatus precisely to give his mother a reason to doubt he’d intended to kill himself. Turing’s favourite story had always been Snow White, and common consensus is he was reenacting the story with his own macabre twist.

The suggestion that the Apple computing company chose its logo of an apple with a bite out of it as an homage to Turing has always been denied.

It took England a long time to apologise for the wrongs done to one of its most brilliant minds, but in 2001, a lifesized statue of Turing was erected in Sackville Park, between the University buildings and the gay village. He sits on a bench, holding an apple with a bite taken out of it. In 2009, a petition calling for the government to apologise received 30,000 signatures, which was acknowledged by then Prime Minster, Gordon Brown.

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.

Two years later, another petition called for Turing to be pardoned. It gathered 37,000 signatures, but was met with opposition from the Lords, who argued that although it was “tragic” he had been convicted of a “cruel and absurd” crime, it had always been government policy not to try to unwrite history by expunging past crimes because they were not illegal in the present. Nonetheless, a bill was introduced to the House of Lords in 2012, requesting Turing be pardoned. Supported by a number of notable figures from the world of academia and the sciences, including Stephen Hawking, the bill was passed and Turing pardoned by royal prerogative. On Christmas Eve, 2013, Elizabeth II signed Turing’s pardon, with immediate effect. It was only the fourth royal pardon issued since 1945, and met none of the usual criteria (i.e. that the party was innocent, and the pardon was requested by their family).

In February this year, Turing’s descendants presented a petition of 50,000 signatures to the government, demanding that all 49,000 historic convictions under the same law as Turing was charged be overturned.

Further reading: How Britain Drove Its Greatest Genius to Suicide | Turing: The Enigma


Born on this day: Anthony Blunt (1907-1983, English), Soviet spy and art historian, one of the Cambridge Five; Gloria E. Anzaldúa (1942-2004, American), academic; Patrick Bristow (53, American), actor; Orville Lloyd Douglas (39, Canadian), poet; Scott Heim (49, American), author; Rich Merritt (48, American), author and attorney; Ronald Tree (1897-1976, English), politician.

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2 replies on “People in History: Alan Turing”

  1. Such a tragic story. 🙁 My heart breaks for him and others in that situation.

    • Kate Aaron says:

      I have at home a print-out of Turing’s obit from The Times. It was heartbreakingly brief. Because most of his work was classified, we didn’t understand the debt we owed him until well into the 1970s.

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