Alan Turing

Updated: Jan 18

Who is Alan Turing?

The famous British mathematician and solver of the Nazi Enigma Code: Alan Turing. Turing is also credited with being the father of the modern day computer. (Image Source: Alamy)

Alan Turing was an openly gay British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, physicist, and biologist. He lived from June 23, 1912 until his death on June 7th, 1954. Turing is credited with breaking the Nazi Enigma Code during World War II and is often referred to as the father of the modern-day computer. In the 1950s, Turing was arrested for his sexuality and was forced to undergo chemical castration. Alan Turing changed the course of history that we are now familiar with today.

Early Life

The October 1950 issue of Mind, an academic journal published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Mind Association. This issue contains Alan Turing’s published paper of the idea of a “Universal Machine.” (Image Credit: Mind Association and Oxford University Press)

Alan Turing was the grandson of the Rev. John Robert Turing and descended from a family that included a baronet (A hereditary title awarded by the British crown). Throughout his schooling, Turing was recognized for his talent. After receiving his first-class-honors in mathematics from King’s College, Cambridge at the age of 22, Turing went on to invent computer science. In 1936, Turing published a paper that is recognized as the foundation for computer science as we know it. The paper analyzed what it meant for a person to follow a definite method or procedure to perform a task. For these purposes, Turing invented the idea of a “Universal Machine” that could decode and perform any set of instructions. Turing also theorized about artificial intelligence, something that is still being developed to this day.

World War II

The Bletchley Park bombe that was in active use during WW2 to decode Nazi messages. (Image Source: Unknown)

Further into his life during World War II, Alan Turing developed a machine, called the bombe that could help break the German Enigma code. The German Enigma code was a device used by the Nazi German military to encode strategic messages before and during World War II. Many people dedicated their time and energy to break this code, and Alan Turing was one of them. Turing invented a device called the bombe that decoded the German Enigma messages very quickly, cracking all of them. The breaking of the Enigma code is theorized to have ended the war two years early. Many modern-day theorists speculate that if the Enigma code had not been broken, the outcome of World War II could have led to a totally different world than we know today.

Exploring Identity

A picture taken of Alan Turing, Fred Clayton (another student of King’s College), and two refugee boys from Austria, Robert and Karl. This very image was used by the GCHQ to apologize for their actions against Turing. (Image Credit: Susannah Ireland)

Less than 100 years ago, homosexuality was illegal in The United Kingdom. However, this did not stop Alan Turing from being openly gay and even partaking in sexual acts with other men. In 1952, Turing was arrested for having a relationship with a 19-year-old, Arnold Murray, while he was 40. Sadly, Turing admitted to “acts of gross indecency” during trial and Turing’s punishment was to undergo chemical castration, the alternative to being sent to prison. However, this conviction meant that Turing lost his own security clearance and had to instantly stop working at the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) a government headquarters in the United Kingdom that Turing was once employed in.

Death and Legacy

Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, His Royal Highness Prince Philip observing an enigma machine at Bletchley Park in 2011. The Queen later went on to issue Alan Turing a royal pardon for his so-called “crimes.” (Image Credit: Arthur Edwards/Associated Press)

Alan Turing died on June 7th, 1954 and was not found dead until a day later by his housekeeper. Cyanide poisoning was found to be the cause of death. When the body was discovered, a half-eaten apple was beside him. This apple was not tested for cyanide poisoning, but it was theorized that Turing committed suicide with the apple by reenacting a scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This theory came to light when David Leavitt and Andrew Hodges noted that Turing took “an especially keen pleasure in the scene where the Wicked Queen immerses her apple in the poisonous brew.” No matter the cause of death, Alan Turing will forever be missed.

In 2009, the now-former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, issued an apology on behalf of the government to Alan Turing. Brown said that the country owed the mathematician a huge debt. The most notable part of Brown’s speech was the following: “This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.”

In 2013, Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II took it a step further and issued a royal pardon for the so-called “crimes” of Alan Turing. The Queen said she was, “Graciously pleased to extend Our Grace and Mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and to grant him Our Free Pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.”

Alan Turing did so much for modern-day society by inventing computer science and changing the course of World War II. The world would be a very different place if it were not for Alan Turing.

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