Disastrous warfare, lethal weaponry, brave soldiers, French beaches; these are perhaps just a handful of things that come to mind when one thinks about the Second World War - and rightly so. Since the Armistice of the War on August 14, 1945, we have repeatedly paid homage to a generation of predominantly young male soldiers that rescued Europe from Hitler’s fascist clutches. The following article will attempt to uncover the tragically short but eventful life of an altogether different war-hero (but a hero nonetheless), the man that Marvin Minsky called ‘the key-figure of our century’; Alan Mathison Turing. Analysis of Turing has tended to focus on his scientific advances and the role of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park in hastening the end of the war. Yet Bletchley stands as an archetype for a more undervalued aspect of British life: eccentricity. Jon Hill explains.
Born in London on June 23, 1912, Turing spent much of his childhood under the care of an old army couple whilst his parents spent most of their time in India due to his father’s work with the civil service. At school, he was never one to follow strict principles, spending much of his time in advanced mathematics to the neglect of his work. Turing’s school head teacher ironically claimed ‘if he is to stay here he must aim at becoming educated’. According to Turing’s biographer Andrew Hodges, his academic life changed when he met Christopher Morecambe, a future love interest who helped him become more communicative with his peers and more focused on his studies. Following Morecambe’s early death, Hodges suggests that Turing became even more determined to focus his analysis into his notorious machines. Before he left school, he had rather unintentionally won the respect of his peers for his own peculiar methods.
In 1931, he entered Kings College, Cambridge, as a mathematical scholar, where he enjoyed a more welcoming atmosphere, and was awarded a fellowship at 22.
Making of the Digital Computer
Turing made his most significant contribution to the age of computers in 1935, when he began his investigation into mathematical logic that would lead to the creation of the ‘Turing Machine’. His paper ‘An Application to the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem)’ spawned the idea that a machine could be used to compute anything that a human mind could. In effect, Turing had created the first modern day computer, revolutionizing human activity in the process; every keyboard stroke you make owes something to Turing’s work.
The ‘Turing Machine’ was subsequently used by engineers at the University of Manchester to build the world’s first working digital computer in June 1948. For his work in Computer Science, the ‘Turing Award’ was established in 1966 - the highest accolade in the computing industry.
In 1939, Turing was headhunted by the government to head the Bletchley Park cipher-breaking mission to crack Nazi encryption. Then, working day and night, Turing and his team oversaw the creation of the ‘bombes’ – the machine built to crack the ‘Enigma code’ in order to enable the government to read German naval signals. Every German U-boat carried an Enigma machine to receive operational orders. To stop them, Enigma had to be broken. This quiet mathematician’s code-breaking endeavors were quite literally a matter of life or death for millions. By 1941 the code had been cracked, thanks, in large part, to this quiet, unassuming, gay man, who wore a gas mask for his allergies, and chained his teacup to a radiator to ensure its safe-keeping.
For his wartime services he was awarded an O.B.E by King George VI in 1946. According to Churchill, Turing made ‘the single greatest contribution to the Allied forces victory in the Second World War.’
It is hard to imagine that such a peculiar group would be amassed by the British government today. Yet the undeniable eccentricity at Bletchley was key to its success. The mission brought together a distinctive cocktail of mathematicians, linguists, cryptanalysts, crossword geeks and other boffins, but left alone in a space to flourish, they experimented their way to greatness.
Betrayal and Death
Although Turing enjoyed popularity in his private life and at Walton Athletics Club (where he was very successful and almost qualified for the 1948 Olympics), the eccentric genius which made him a wartime hero was not as appreciated in peacetime. In 1952, when reporting a burglary to the police, he naively admitted to a relationship with a man. He was subsequently arrested for ‘gross indecency with males’, one of 1,600 men who had been convicted in 1952 alone. Instead of a prison sentence, Turing was ordered to undergo psychoanalysis and a year’s treatment of estrogen injections.
Turing’s homosexuality was not completely secret. Many of his friends and peers at Bletchley and Cambridge endeavored to keep his relations covert, which, according to I.J Good, was just as important to the war effort as the code-cracking mission itself; ‘if the security people had known he may well have been fired and we would have lost the war.’
On June 7, 1954, Turing was found dead at his home, with a cyanide poisoned apple confirmed to be the cause of death. The investigation stated it to be a suicide, although many Turing experts have ruled it to be an accident. With no suicide notes, no prior symptoms of depression, his regular trips abroad, and his knowledge of British intelligence, some have even suggested that he was deemed too much of a national security risk and was subsequently murdered with the knowledge of the government.
It seems to me that Turing’s life (and death) is a reminder of much that was terrible about the twentieth century. His genius was suppressed by an embarrassing education system; he was used by the government to make one of the largest contributions to human survival in recent history, before being swiftly sidelined while lesser scientists took his work onto ‘the next level’; he was not only persecuted but tortured for his homosexuality and was allegedly condemned as a ‘risk’.
Bletchley Park now stands as not only a code-breaking museum, but also for the triumph of the outsider. Turing’s posthumous pardon in 2013 stands as a beacon of hope for a suppressed generation of gay people, made to suffer for the prejudices of others.
In his 1937 paper on computer machines, Turing stated ‘the human memory is necessarily limited.’ Turing’s legacy stands as a reminder that one should not allow their memory to become limited. The age of tolerance should remember Turing as a necessary sacrifice made by a man far ahead of his time. And for that, he deserves to be considered as one of the greatest men in human history.
Do you agree with the author that Alan Turing was one of the greatest men in human history? Let us know below…
Ben Macintyre, ‘Bletchley Park: a fitting memorial to our enigmatic nature.’ Times (London, England), 22 August 2008.
Ben Macintyre, ‘The genius Britain betrayed.’ Times (London, England), 14 July 2006.
‘Codebreaker’, directed by Clare Beavan and Nic Stacey (2011).
M.H.A. Newman, ‘Alan Mathison Turing, 1912-1954.’ Royal Society, vol 1 (1955), pp. 253-263.
Richard Morrison, ‘The war’s forgotten hero.’ Times (London, England), 22 August 2008.