BLETCHLEY, ENGLAND – A founding father of the modern computer, Alan Turing devised a machine that unraveled Nazi codes and aided the defeat of Adolf Hitler. Convicted of homosexuality after World War II and sentenced to chemical castration, Turing — an avid fan of the film “Snow White” — was found dead in 1954 from cyanide poisoning, a bitten apple by his bedside.
More than half a century after his apparent suicide, a movement is cresting to reboot the record of the British mathematician’s short but luminous life.
Responding to a campaign by laureates such as Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, parliament is moving toward granting Turing a posthumous pardon. The act would recognize the humiliation of one of computer science’s leading intellects who, after being sentenced by a British court to forced treatment with female hormones, became impotent and budded breasts before being found dead by his housekeeper in a lonely room near Manchester.
Some academics are even calling for a reopening of the inquest that quickly declared his death self-inflicted, despite the lack of a suicide note.
The push comes amid a new swell of international attention for a man who scholars say made conceptual breakthroughs that laid the groundwork for everything from mainframes to smartphones. The recent rush of tributes include new books on his life, Turing-inspired computer conventions and the rediscovery of his lesser-known works exploring topics such as linguistic philosophy and the search for mathematical proof of the human soul. The fresh accolades are propelling a wronged war hero, scholars say, to his rightful place in history.
“Every time you turn on your computer, every time you check your email, every time you share a photo” it is because of Turing’s concepts, said Teddy Schwarzman, producer of the “Imitation Game,” a multimillion-dollar biopic on Turing due out next year starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.
Yet the campaign to pardon Turing’s 1952 conviction — which came after he acknowledged having a same-sex relationship and declared he saw nothing wrong with it — is also igniting a debate over the tricky business of rewriting history.
Opponents argue that what is done is done and that a pardon could spark an avalanche of petitions from families of other deceased convicts whose punishments in their day now seem barbaric. Still others say the parliamentary proposal does not go far enough. If Turing is pardoned, why not the writer Oscar Wilde, the actor John Gielgud and the thousands of other less-notable Britons once punished for the love that dare not speak its name?
Since last year, living Britons convicted under the 1885 law that largely targeted gay men — popular myth says Queen Victoria did not believe lesbians existed — can apply for pardons. But parliament has yet to extend the same right to families wishing to clear the names of dead relatives who were sentenced under the law — which was overturned in 1967 in England and Wales and 1980 in Scotland.
“The argument (for pardoning Turing alone) is seductive,” Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay rights group Stonewall, recently wrote in The Guardian newspaper. “This brilliant man helped crack Hitler’s Enigma codes, thus shortening the Second World War by up to two years. Hundreds of thousands of lives were probably saved as a consequence.”
But what good would it do, Summerskill argued, if parliament does not also back pardons for other deceased gay men? They include British soldiers who returned from World War II “to a nation where simply having a loving private life led almost automatically to prison.”
If the move to pardon Turing shows anything, however, it is that one of the most compelling figures in the rarefied world of mathematics has perhaps never been more popular.
Turing’s reputation endured in academic circles even after the scandal of his conviction and subsequent death at age 41. But it was only in the 1960s and the dawning of the information age in the 1970s that scholars began to truly grasp the importance of his earlier work.
His seminal 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers” outlined the theory of a “Universal Machine,” a device that some scholars now call the conceptual forerunner of program-based computers. In the 1940s, he outlined what was arguably the first realizable design for a modern computer. In 1950, he propagated an early notion of artificial intelligence in a paper that posed the question: “Can machines think?”
Yet Turing remained relatively obscure in the public eye until the late 1970s, when the first details emerged about his role in the top-secret “code breakers” operation at Bletchley Park — a sprawling estate that became a World War II museum in the picturesque county of Buckinghamshire.
Teams of mathematicians, linguists and engineers first descended on the warren-like complexes in 1939. As Hitler’s blitz began raining fire on British cities a year later, Turing and others worked around the clock to turn the tide of the war by cracking Nazi messages encoded by the infamous Enigma machines. Even among the great minds gathered at Bletchley Park for the war effort, scholars say, Turing stood out.
Turing had already distinguished himself as a leading mathematician — a brilliant, if socially awkward, man who practiced his speeches on a teddy bear named Porgy and had a penchant for intellectual banter. Building on earlier work done by Polish experts and in collaboration with a team that included fellow mathematician Gordon Welchman, Turing and company delivered the war’s other big “bomb” — the bombe machine.
About the size of an upright queen-size bed, the bombe allowed for quick deciphering of Nazi messages, helping secure a key victory against German U-boats that were strangling supply lines in the Atlantic.
“As one of his colleagues once said, it was a very good thing that the government didn’t know that Turing was a homosexual during the war, because if they found out, they would have sacked him and we would have lost,” said Lord John Sharkey, sponsor of the Turing pardon in Britain’s upper house, the House of Lords.
In the 1980s, an exhaustive biography by Oxford scholar Andrew Hodges elevated Turing’s image further, and a play about Turing’s life hit London’s West End in 1986. But more recently, Turing has risen to folk-hero status, particularly on university campuses and at underground hacker conferences in Europe.
In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered the first national apology to Turing. It set up the centennial of Turing’s birth last year, when universities from the United States to Peru to New Zealand held events honoring Turing. The first major retrospective on Turing’s life was extended through next month because of high demand at London’s Science Museum. A British postage stamp bearing his likeness went on sale last year, as did an Alan Turing edition of Monopoly — a board game he was said to be obsessed with as a child. Google has unveiled a “doodle” in his honor.
Led by Jack Copeland, director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, some scholars say the time is ripe to reopen the inquest into Turing’s death.
Copeland argues that evidence suggests Turing bore the burden of his sentence with a sense of humor and a strong will. He theorizes that fumes from an experiment may have accidentally killed Turing. Although two jars of cyanide were found in Turing’s home, the apple found by his bedside — long assumed to have been dipped in poison — was never tested.
Hodges paints Turing’s death as intentional, albeit sudden and deeply symbolic. The apple — whether prop or poisoned — nodded to “Snow White,” a film that had left a deep impression on Turing, while also suggesting the “forbidden fruit” that had branded him a criminal. Still, Turing gave little sign that he was preparing to take his own life, and at the time of the 1954 inquest, his mother insisted his death must have been accidental.
Today, however, some members of the Turing family are arguing against a new inquest. The body of evidence, they say, still overwhelmingly supports suicide.
“I think it’s much less awkward territory to focus on the achievements of his life and not the Shakespearean and rather unpleasant end to things,” said his nephew, Dermot Turing. “He would rather have had his legacy be about that.”