Alan Turing – a Modern Martyr

The life and achievements of a gay man who helped Britain win the war.

Turing’s achievements

Turing was born in 1912 in Paddington to a middle class family. Turing started his educational life at the age of 6 when his parents enrolled him at a school called St Michael’s. St Michael’s was a Day School which meant that Turing got to go home after his lessons. This was not a common practice for middle class families at this time as most children were sent away to live at boarding schools. The Headmistress of St Michaels quickly discovered that Turing was a gifted child with a sharp mind and many talents. Most people who met Turing during his life would say the same.
Alan Turing
In 1935 Turing graduated from Cambridge with a First Class Honours degree in mathematics. After university, Turing was made one of the ‘Fellows Of King’s’ at Kings College London. The ‘Fellows Of King’s’ is an exclusive group made up of the best and the brightest minds in Britain so at the age of 22 this was a fantastic achievement for Turing.

In 1938 Turing started working part-time for GC&CS (Government Code and Cypher School) at Bletchley Park. With the outbreak of the Second World War Turing started working at Bletchley full time. Turing’s main goal was to break the German Enigma code. The Enigma Code was essentially a Machine that scrambled the German’s military and naval messages so that if the allied forces did intercept them they were not able to read them.

How does the Enigma Machine work? When a key is pressed on the keyboard an electrical current is sent through the machine. The current first passes through the plug board, then through up to 5 rotors, through the reflector which bounces the current back through the  rotors, to light up a letter on the reserver display. Enigma

The Enigma was a big problem for the allied forces and Turing knew this. Turing took it on himself to invent a machine that could break the Enigma and 2 years later Turing unveiled ‘Bomba’, a machine that could break the Enigma code. The invention of Bomba shortened the war and allowed our allies to plan assaults like D-Day, it also allowed the navy to detect German U-boats so shipping was not under a direct threat. Turing’s discovery saved tens of thousands of lives on our allies side. In recognition of Turing’s achievements and services to the country, Turing was awarded a OBE by King Gorge VI.

After the war Turing started working on designing and building an Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) for the National Physical Laboratory. The ACE was completed in 1947. It is the grandfather of our modern day computers and was the first step on a very long road of discovery. It is all thanks to Turing.

Turing’s Death and conviction

From 1952 until his death, Turing started working in the field of mathematical biology. It was during this time that Turing entered in to a relationship with a 19 year old man called Arnold Murray. Later that year Turing’s house was burgled, ensuring questions about Turing’s sexual relationship were emerged. Turing confessed to being homosexual and was subsequently charged with gross indecency.

Turing was given a choice between being imprisoned and chemical castration. He choose chemical castration so he could continue with his work, the result of which he believed would benefit the people. On 8 June 1954 Alan Turing was found dead in his bed. He had killed himself by taking cyanide. It was obvious that Alan Turing could not live with what the government had done. He couldn’t pretend he was someone different and hide his feelings.

Alan Turing helped save our country during WW2 and saved thousands of lives thanks to his invention. Turing had one of the greatest minds of the 20th century – he basically designed the desktop computer we all know today which revolutionised the way society functions today. Alan Turing was treated like a dog with behavioural problems by his own people and was forced to renounce his own sexuality over peoples moral objection. Although the British government did not force Turing to take the cyanide they did effectively sentence him to death.

Alan Turing

It took until 2009 for the UK government to recognise that Alan Turing was wrongly prosecuted. The British Government then promptly posthumously apologised for Turing’s prosecution as a homosexual. In 2013 Queen Elizabeth II signed a pardon for Turing’s conviction of Gross Indecency.

Why did it take so long to apologise for an action that was clearly wrong? and why isn’t Alan Turing a more permanent figure in British history? Is it because there is still homophobia? All I know is that as a community we should never forget what Turing has done for us and never forget the miscarriage of justice carried out on him.

Corby Taylor