Alan Turing

Will Bradshaw is a writer and English language teacher living in the North of England. He regularly writes on political matters and will begin a Philosophy MA this autumn. You can follow him on Twitter at @_WBradshaw, and see his personal work at Angry Meditations on Wordpress.

"We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done."

-Alan Turing

There are a myriad of accounts about Alan Turing's life. You can read biographies, watch films, and browse entire websites dedicated to the man dubbed 'the father of artificial intelligence'. But many of these accounts fail on a number of fronts. Some downplay his sexuality, others ignore it outright, and only a handful recognize that Alan Turing's achievements are as much down to his early romantic experiences as they are to his intellectual prowess.

Born in 1912 to parents Ethel and Julius, Alan quickly showed signs of the genius he was to become, despite the stifling, reactionary conditions surrounding his early years (due to his parents' commitments in the British Raj, both he and his brother spent time in the care of a retired Colonel).

When his father permanently retired from the Indian Civil Service in 1926, Alan finally found stability at home, and his raw curiosity bought him a place at a private boy's school in Sherbourne.

Like all geniuses, Alan was sorely underappreciated at school. His classical-minded tutors criticized his "slipshod, dirty work" in school reports, constantly failing him and warning that he was unfit for ordinary education. Alan was also repeatedly harangued by his worried mother who feared that his independent mind was a bad fit for British society (boys at this time were often groomed for service in the British Empire, rather than taught to be free-thinkers).

Amidst this oppressive atmosphere, Alan found solace in the form of fellow student and first love, Christopher Morcom, whom he would doodle mathematical formulae to in class. Though his love for Christopher was unrequited, the pair nonetheless became rigorous intellectual companions and close friends. Christopher was also one of the only people able to focus Alan's mind and channel his curiosity into the sciences.

Sadly, this friendship was not meant to last. Christopher fell ill from tuberculosis soon after being accepted to university, and died from it in October 1930. Alan would later recount a startling premonition he had of Christopher's death, just mere days before the boy fell ill.

Needless to say, Alan was profoundly struck. He had lost his best friend, his first love, and the only person who understood him, all in a single day. He had even lost his faith in God.

Desperate for comfort and convinced that his premonition had meaning, Alan turned to science to explain his soulmate's death. While working towards a mathematics degree at King's College (where he studied from 1931 to 1934), Alan studied the fledgling field of quantum mechanics on the side, even writing an essay on the matter entitled Nature of Spirit. In it, he concludes that the mind and body exist as separate entities and that upon death, the "mechanism" that holds the mind in place is released, allowing it to live on and perhaps even find a new body to inhabit.

It is not clear whether Christopher's mind survived death, but his impression on Alan certainly did. Nature of Spirit may be just a young man's attempt to wrangle with death, but it marked the most focused intellectual effort of Alan's life so far. It is clear that Alan's mind had been permanently sharpened by his experience with homosexual love.

University also had a profound effect on the young Alan. The fairly tolerant and liberal atmosphere at King's College allowed him to explore and accept his sexuality through a relationship with friend and fellow mathematician James Atkins. It also gave Alan the chance to explore politics by fraternising with the anti-war movement, though this did not have any lasting impact, aside from giving Alan the chance to cheekily scare his mother by calling the movement "communist" in his letters to her.

Alan left university with a degree in mathematics, and began studying at Princeton under the guidance of Alonzo Church, a renowned logician who would give Alan's free-spirited mind further precision and focus. In 1936, Alan wrote On Computable Numbers, in which he theorized about a machine that could solve any mathematical equation that had an answer. Alonzo had previously published a similar thesis, but Alan's idea for a 'universal machine' (what we now call a computer) was found to be far more accessible than his mentor's.

In 1938, Alan returned to England with a PhD under his belt. He began working for the government's codebreaking division, GC&CS, which was trying to solve the German's Enigma machine, which they used to encode sensitive messages. The British government felt that after the Munich Agreement, in which Nazi Germany formally annexed the Sudetenland, it was best to get a head-start on their encryption methods in the event of a war.

After the Second World War began, Alan was assigned to Bletchley Park and began cracking the Enigma in earnest. The Polish had come up with a workable yet grossly inefficient "Bombe" machine that could decipher German codes with considerable difficulty and delay, but this was too slow to be of much use.

Alan took the Poles' work and transformed it into the "British Bombe", an algorithm machine that used mathematical logic to decipher the messages. By 1940, this was up and running and effectively allowed the British to decode the Nazis' military messages and protect Allied supply lines in the North Atlantic.

Alan had essentially given a machine the ability to use logic, not to mention a machine which helped the Allies win the war.

By the end of the war, Alan had become a hero at Bletchley Park, and was awarded an OBE for his service. He had also gained a reputation as an eccentric - he reportedly wore his issued gas mask to protect him from hay fever while riding his bike, and used to chain his coffee mug to a radiator to stop other people from using them. His eccentricities, among other things, have led some to suspect that he had Asperger's syndrome, though this has not been confirmed, and the validity of retroactive diagnoses are questionable so there is no way to truly know if that was the case.

But breaking codes had not been his only occupation at Bletchley. He had spent much of his time there captivated by electronics, and the more he studied them, the more he was convinced that the "universal machine" he had previously theorized about was possible. He even believed that as these machines grew in scope, they would acquire some level of intelligence, perhaps even consciousness.

He set to work at the National Physical Laboratory in London, which was locked in a race against the Americans to create the first computer. Alan published a paper which outlined some of the architecture for an Automatic Computing Machine (ACE), but delays, secrecy, and an increasing alienation from many of the technical decisions left Alan feeling frustrated by the work. He left the NPL in 1947, and they built a test version of the ACE without him.

A year later, Alan was working in the computing laboratory at Manchester University, where for the first time he dealt with the problem of artificial intelligence. He published Computing Machinery and Intelligence, now famous for producing the Turing Test, by which a machine can be called intelligent if it can fool a human into thinking it is a human too. Turing also created the first ever computer chess programme while at Manchester, but since no machine had the capacity to run it, Turing stood in and played against his colleagues.

As time progressed, Alan secured more and more victories for the worlds of computer science, technology, and even philosophy. In 1951 he published The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, in which he even contributed to the field of mathematical biology.

In 1952, he happened upon a young man, Arnold Murray, while returning from a trip the cinema. The pair struck up a conversation, went for lunch, and entered into a relationship soon after. The course of events to follow would forever change Alan's life.

At the end of January 1952, his house was burgled by an acquaintance of Murray's. Alan reported the crime to police who then questioned him about how he knew Murray. Alan openly stated that they were in a relationship, which led to both his and Murray's arrest for "gross indecency" (homosexuality would remain a crime in England until 1967).

On the advice of his brother, Alan pled guilty to the charges, and once convicted, he was given a choice between imprisonment and a period of probation which would include "treatment" for his sexuality through synthetic oestrogen injections (chemical castration). Alan opted for the latter, and for the next year he was subjected to impotency and gynecomastia (male breast enlargement).

Alan was also stripped of his security clearance at GCHQ (the successor to Bletchley Park) as the authorities regarded his sexuality as potential blackmail risk that could be used to obtain state secrets. In a letter to friend Norman Routledge, Alan also feared that his sexuality would be used to discredit his intellectual ideas.

Despite this state-sanctioned torture, Alan remained in fairly good spirits, and likened his final day in court to that feeling he so often had at school, that of a naughty child's "agreeable irresponsibility". He continued with his work, and there was talk of him dating a man from Norway, though the security services' close watch on Alan prevented this relationship from blooming.

Nevertheless, in June 1954 Alan Turing was found dead by his housekeeper. An autopsy later confirmed that he had died due to cyanide poisoning, possibly from a half-eaten apple found by his bedside (although this was never tested). He was cremated at Woking Crematorium and his ashes were scattered in the same spot as his father's were some years before.

An inquest into Alan's death concluded that he had indeed committed suicide, although there are a number of alternative explanations. His mother, for instance, concluded that her son's death was due to his careless storage of lab equipment. Philosopher Jack Copeland, meanwhile, has suggested that the inquest on Alan's death does not meet accurate standards required to rule it a suicide. Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has even suggested that Turing may have been murdered by the security services. Calls for a modern inquest continue to be ignored.

The exact circumstances surrounding Alan's death may never be known, but his legacy has lived on in both a scientific and a personal capacity. For one thing, were it not for Alan I would never have written this article on my computer, nor would you be reading it. Alan's contributions to computer science have shaped the modern world in an inconceivable number of ways, and there is no telling just how many subsequent inventions or advances are a direct result of his work.

Despite these achievements, Alan's conviction for "gross indecency" would be upheld for sixty years after his death. Only in 2009, when a programmer started a petition calling for his pardon, did the British public suddenly find their conscience and add their voice to the movement. The petition garnered over 30,000 signatures, prompting Prime Minister Gordon Brown to make a formal apology on behalf of the government:

"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"

He went on:

"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 in conviction. I am proud that those days are gone"

For many, the apology was bittersweet. While it was satisfying to get formal recognition for the wrongdoing Alan endured, many were deeply unhappy with the language of Brown's apology. Why the insistence that Alan was "dealt with under the law of the time"? Why no mention of the petition's original point, that Alan should be pardoned?

It was clear that the fight was not over. A follow-up petition two years later demanded a pardon again, and it too gained well over 30,000 signatures, though the Justice Minister at the time, Tom McNally, insultingly suggested that a pardon was "not appropriate" since Alan did commit a crime at the time. McNally even suggested that Alan should have known better, much to the ire of campaigners.

Unbeknownst to him, McNally's obtuse refusal to proceed with the pardon only made the outcry worse. In 2011, Liberal Democrat MP John Leech tirelessly submitted several bills to Parliament that would end the "ultimate embarrassment" of not only Alan's conviction, but of all those people wrongly convicted under similar legislation. One of these bills made it all the way to the House of Lords, and even gained public support from popular physicists like Stephen Hawking.

David Cameron's government indicated it would support the bill, but parliamentary processes are often slow, and there were fears that the bill would be stuck in committees and hearings, deformed by amendments, and ultimately forgotten about. Sensing the mood, Cameron decided to bypass Parliament and issue a royal prerogative of mercy for Alan. It finally came into effect in 2014.

After a frustrating five year battle against the powers that be, Alan's name was finally cleared. But some were not thrilled at the prospect of abandoning the thousands of others who suffered the same injustice. Nor was it particularly comforting to know that the government was "pardoning" Alan in the first place. After all, a pardon implies that the person did something wrong, which Alan didn't.

Regardless of whether such a pardon is the best means to correct the injustice, in 2017 it was finally extended to the some 49,000 people who found themselves in the same position as Alan. A provision buried in the 2017 Policing and Crime Act, dubbed the Alan Turing Law, has retroactively pardoned all those warned or convicted for same-sex relationships or acts. It currently applies to England and Wales, but there is talk of Scotland enacting its own provision.

As we end our story here, it is important to state again just how much we owe to Alan Turing as LGBT people. Turing was not a human rights campaigner, and yet his life has served as an inspiration to countless people who battle with homophobia to this day. In that sense, Alan's life both shows how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go still.

Though nobody in the British government would dream of ever allowing those "gross indecency" laws to ever rear their ugly head again, it is quite startling how much effort it took to shake the government out of its stupor. The issue of removing these historical convictions is not just some symbolic righting of a wrong, it is an issue that affects living people and their families. Of the 49,000 convicted, some are still alive today, and until 2016, they were walking around with a criminal record for loving the wrong people.

Successive British governments have partially set the record straight (pardon the pun), but it always takes enormous campaigns and public outrage before they even remember that the issue exists. Perhaps Alan Turing's legacy is a sad reminder that unless we work together and continue to forge the tight-knit communities we are famous for, we are essentially living at the whims of the government of the day.

Personally, I like to think that Alan's life is a reminder of the strength of the human spirit, of the capacity for goodness and greatness, and above all else, an enormous source of inspiration for the LGBT community.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material.]


The Spirit of Alan Turing, London Science Museum

A Valentine Memorium, The Turing Centenary

How A Gay Love Story Led to the Invention of the Computer, Polari Magazine

Empire of the Mind, The Alan Turing Internet Scrapbook

Nature of Spirit by Alan Turing, Safari Books Online (free trial required)

On Computable Numbers, With an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem, University of Virginia, Computer Science Department

Difficult to Decode: Alan Turing's Life and its Implications, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Computing Machinery and Intelligence, Hugh Loebner

The Eccentric Mr. Turing, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

Yours in Distress, Letters of Note

Alan Turing vs. Alick Glennie, Chess Games

Ethel Turing's Letters to Robin Gandy, Christie's Auctions

Alan Turing: Inquest's suicide verdict 'not supportable', BBC News

Alan Turing: Was he murdered by the security services?, Huffington Post

Gordon Brown: I'm proud to say sorry to a real war hero, The Telegraph

Policing and Crime Act 2017,