Alan Turing OBE, FRS was
granted a Royal Pardon this week. His crime? Being homosexual.
When he was convicted of Gross
Indecency in 1952, he was given the choice of imprisonment or probation. A
condition of probation was to undergo a
course of chemical castration by injections of synthetic oestrogen to render him
impotent and remove his libido.
He chose the latter.
He died of an overdose of
cyanide two years later.
Two weeks before his 42nd
The pardon process was started
with an internet campaign, and in September 2009,British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized
on behalf of the British government for "the appalling way he was
treated." In May 2012, a bill was put before the House of Lords to grant
Turing a statutory pardon. But in July
2013,the government opted for a pardon under the royal prerogative of mercy on
23 December 2013.
The man was a genius in his
the field of mathematics and he seems to have been a charismatic and intriguing
one. He is best known for being a key part in the team that broke the enigma
code. This work is reputed to have shortened the second world war by two years. The fact
that his work has been kept restricted for over 70 years shows its importance. The team based at Bletchley Park made five
major advances including decoding the indicator procedure the German navy used at the
time, and (too late to be used in the war) a portable voice scrambler, codenamed
Turing's papers from this period
have titles like, “ Report on the
applications of probability to cryptography” and “Paper on statistics of
repetitions”. Or, as he once said, 'from a contradiction, you can deduce everything'. Food for thought for us crime scribblers.
Turing’s genius ranged from mathematics
to cryptanalysis to computer science. None of us would be tapping a keyboard to make the magic on the screen it if were not
for Turing. He was educated atCambridge University, the National Physical
Laboratory, the University of Manchester and Princeton University. His Thesis
was on Systems of Logic based on Ordinals (1938) which sounds pretty impressive
to me. But recall that I am the blogger that took a month to find the on
switchon my new tablet/hybrid/thingy which I don’t even know the name of.
Turing’s dad Julius, worked
with the Indian Civil Service but he and his wife Ethel agreed that their
children should be brought up in England. Young Alan soon showed signs of being
a brain box with that steely determination (or madness) usually associated
with those who are 'very good at things'.
When he was 13, his first day of term coincided with the 1926 General
Strike in Britain so he just cycled the 60 miles to school, spending the night
at an inn. He did this on his own (at 13!).
Being very good at mathematics
gave his teachers at a school (which was founded on a more classical education) some concern. I found
a quote that his headmaster wrote to his parents: "I hope he will not fall
between two stools. If he is to stay at public 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".
But he was truly gifted and by
age 16 he was solving advanced problems In 1928 Turing encountered Albert Einstein's
work, had a think and extrapolated from
it. By this time Turing had only been
taught elementary calculus!
Turing was pleasingly eccentric.
In his time at Bletchley Park he would wear a standard issue gas mask to ward
off hay fever, he would chain his mug to the radiator pipes to prevent it being
nicked. Most interestingly, he was a talented distance runner. He used to run
the 40 miles to London when he was
needed for high-level meetings. He was also capable of world-class marathon
standards. I wonder if he used that quiet contemplation of the distance runner
In 1941, Turing had a short lived engagement to a Bletchley park co-worker Joan Clarke. She knew of his
homosexuality but was not bothered by
it. It bothered him though and he did not go through with the marriage.
In January 1952, Turing
started a relationship with a 19-year-old man but when Turing's house was burgled and he reported the
crime to the police, Turing acknowledged
his sexual relationship and was charged with gross indecency. He pleaded "guilty", but never felt any remorse
or guilt. He believed he was what he was.
At that time the public were paranoid about
the security issues of
homosexual entrapment, the first two of the Cambridge five had just
been exposed. Turing had his security
clearance removed and he was barred from working at Government Communications
Headquarters (GCHQ), (the new Bletchley
On 8 June 1954, Turing's
cleaner found him dead. He had died the previous day and the post mortem showed
he had died from cyanide poisoning. An
inquest determined death by suicide although, despite all his medical and legal
problems, he was in a good frame of mind. He had spoken to nobody about being
despondent, and had even made a 'to do' list for his return from the holiday weekend,
Beside his body lay half-eaten
apple. It was not tested for cyanide but there has been much speculation that
this was how he consumed the fatal dose. It is fascinating that this
mega intelligent human being was captivated by the story of Snow White…. especially
the bit where the queen is 'changed' to the evil witch…. by the act of eating a poisoned apple.
Maybe it is more likely
that he died as a result of the
accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes from some experimental apparatus that
Turing had set in his very small, badly ventilated room. Especially as the some suggest the coroners findings pointed to death by inhalation of the
fumes rather than ingestion.
There is a film coming out
next year, called the The Imitation Game, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. Not often I
get excited about a film release, but that is one I am looking forward to.
At the back of my mind,
there is the question.. 42 is life have lived – what else might he have gone on