LGBTQ+ Icons of history you should know: Alan Turing (1912-1954)
Learn more about the father of modern computer science and gay icon
Brought to you by Solvay's LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group, in celebration of Pride Month. Born in London in 1912, Alan Turing’s father was still active in the Indian Civil Service (ICS)* during his childhood years, and because of this, the young child’s parents constantly traveled between the United Kingdom and India, leaving their two sons to stay with a retired Army couple.
Turing was a brilliant mathematician who studied at both Cambridge - where he was awarded first-class honors in mathematics - and Princeton universities. In addition to his purely mathematical work, he studied cryptology and also built three of four stages of an electro-mechanical binary multiplier.
Before the Second World War he was already working for the British Government’s Code and Cypher School, but in 1939 he took up a full-time role at Bletchley Park - where secret work was carried out to decipher the military codes used by Germany and its allies.
It is estimated that the intelligence produced at Bletchley Park shortened the war by two to four years, and Turing played a central role in this.
How Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code
Alan Turing's main focus was cracking the Enigma code used by the German armed forces to send messages securely.
Polish mathematicians had worked out how to read Enigma messages and shared this information with the British. However, the Germans increased its security at the outbreak of war by changing the cipher system daily, making the task of understanding the code even more difficult.
Turing set about cracking the Enigma messages, inventing a machine known as the Bombe that helped significantly reduce the work of code-breakers. The Bombe used logic to decipher the encrypted messages by working backwards through the coding process of the Enigma Machine to determine how the machine was set every day.
By the mid-1940s German Air Force signals were being read at Bletchley and the intelligence gained from them was helping the war effort.
Why Alan Turing is considered the father of modern computer science and artificial intelligence
After the war, Alan Turing continued to use his considerable expertise in computing to develop his ideas about computer science.
He worked on the design of the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) at the National Physical Laboratory, which many people still see as the forerunner to the modern computer.
In 1949 Turing became Deputy Director of the Computing Machine Laboratory at the Victoria University of Manchester, working on software for one of the earliest stored-program computers - the Manchester Mark 1.
And besides designing computer systems, Turing also became a pioneer in artificial intelligence. In 1950, he published a paper called Computing Machinery and Intelligence, which introduced what we know today as the Turing test, as test to designed to determine a machine’s ability to exhibit human-like intelligence. A reversed form is widely used on the internet today: the CAPTCHA test, designed to determine whether a user is human or computer.
Alan Turing sentenced for gross indecency
Three years later, Turing was arrested for homosexuality due to his relationship with a man named Arnold Murray – which was then illegal in Britain – and was found guilty of ‘gross indecency’.
He avoided a prison sentence by accepting chemical castration but the conviction led to the removal of his security clearance and barred him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy for the Government Communications Headquarters.
On 8 June 1954 he was found dead from cyanide poisoning at his home, with an inquest ruling that he died of suicide.
Celebrating Alan Turing’s legacy: a royal pardon and Turing's Law
In 2013, following petitions from the pubic, Turing given a posthumous royal pardon after bills were submitted in Parliament and the House of Lords.
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary at the time said: “Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”
In 2016 the Government announced gay and bisexual men convicted of now-abolished sexual offenses in England and Wales were to receive posthumous pardons under an amendment dubbed "Turing’s Law".
Today, Alan Turing is celebrated as one of the brightest minds - he was even voted the ‘Greatest Person of the 20th Century’ in BBC televote. He also appears on the £50 note in England and was immortalized on the big screen in the Academy Award-winning movie, The Imitation Game (2014)
* The Indian Civil Service (ICS), officially known as the Imperial Civil Service, was the highest civil service of the British Empire in India during British rule in the period between 1858 and 1947.