Alan Turing: The Enigma Machine
A stylised painting of Alan Turing adorns the wall of the Belfast Foyer Bytes Project as a reminder of how far humanity has come and how far we have yet to go.
Alan Mathison Turing (23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954) was an English Mathematician, a code-breaker during World War II and a pioneer in the field of Computer Science. His personal history is also important to us because his story has much to teach us about human rights, inclusion and equality.
A biopic based on the Andrew Hodges biography Alan Turing: The Enigma and starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role is to be made in 2014.
While Alan Turing, himself, was from London and grew up in Guildford; his father was from Scotland and his mother, Sara Turing was from Ireland. Sara spent much of her childhood in County Clare. Alan Turing had an older brother, who married and had a son, Alan’s nephew, Sir John Dermot Turing. Even as a small child Alan showed signs of genius. When he was 13 he was enrolled in a boarding school in Dorset. The first day of term coincided with the 1926 General Strike of Britain which, amongst other things, brought public transport to a standstill. Alan was so determined to attend school, however, that he rode his bicycle unaccompanied for more than 60 miles from Southampton to Sherbourne where the school was located.
Alan Turing went on to be one of the most significant logicians of the 20th Century. His life’s work could be considered to be the development of the Universal Turing Machine and the formalisation of the concepts of ‘computation’ and ‘algorithm’. This work is central to the invention of modern computing as we know it today.
During World War 2 Alan Turing worked in Bletchley Park, the codebreaking centre in Britain for the Allied Forces.
In January 1952, Turing began dating a man called Arnold Murray. On 23 January Turing’s house was broken into. Murray told Turing that the burglar was an acquaintance of his, and Turing reported the crime to the police. During the investigation he acknowledged his relationship with Murray. At that time homosexuality was a criminal offence in the U.K. and both men were charged with gross indecency. Initial committal proceedings for the trial began on 27 February, where Turing’s solicitor “reserved his defence”.
Later Turing’s brother and his lawyer convinced him to plead guilty, even though he, quite rightly, didn’t feel any guilt at all about being gay. His case was brought to trial on 31 March 1952 and Turing was convicted. He was given a “choice” between imprisonment and chemical castration – being injected with hormones to reduce libido. The treatment rendered Turing impotent and caused other complications. His conviction also led to the removal of his security clearance and prevented much of his work and travel throughout the world as homosexuality was viewed by people in power in those times as a security risk.
On the 8th of June, 1954 Alan Turing was found dead. A post-mortem established that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. There are significant questions around whether or not his death was accidental. Regardless of that, however, his death was a tragic loss to society.