Turing back the clock: The LGBT icon who saved the war

The mathematical genius widely considered the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, was perhaps one of the most influential yet understated figures in the second world war. Despite his contributions shortening the war by more than two years and saving over 14 million lives, Turing was ridiculed and tortured for his sexuality, and ultimately committed suicide through cyanide poisoning in 1954. He was 41. 

In his early years, Turing’s teachers recognised his talents for mathematics and the sciences, though this was disapproved of at the time as education of the classics was deemed more important – quite the opposite of what Rishi Sunak argues today. Regardless, Turing’s mathematical ability flourished throughout his childhood, particularly during his time at Sherborne School; an independent boarding school in Dorset. At age 15 he was solving advanced mathematical problems without having been taught calculus, and a year later he was analysing Einstein’s questioning of Newton’s laws of motion, despite this information never having been publicly available. 

Alan Turing: Creator of modern computing - BBC Teach
Alan Turing at Sherborne School. Image: BBC.

Here, at Sherborne School, he met Christopher Morcom; widely regarded as Turing’s first love. They both shared an intense love of mathematics and science, with Morcom introducing Turing to astronomy, advanced mathematics, and even coding – ultimately forming the foundations of Turing’s greatest legacy. However, this blossoming sense of companionship was cut short. Tragically, in February 1930, Morcom died aged 18 due to complications from bovine tuberculosis. Many say that Turing grieved his companion’s loss for the rest of his life, keeping regular contact with Frances Morcom, Morcom’s mother, for many years after. In one of such letters Turing wrote:

“I expect you will be thinking of Chris when this reaches you. I shall too, and this letter is just to tell you that I shall be thinking of Chris and of you tomorrow [Morcom’s birthday]. I am sure that he is as happy now as he was when he was here. Your affectionate Alan.”

Alan Turing

Morcom’s death forced Turing to reflect on the nature of consciousness and how this could be linked to mathematics, he developed the idea that the mind is a machine which, with necessary input, could be replicated via mathematics. Turing pursued this idea throughout his time at Cambridge University. The resultant research would, in future decades, be regarded as the root of all artificial intelligence and modern computers.

How the Enigma machine worked. Credit: World Science Festival.

During the second world war, Alan Turing was enlisted into the British codebreaking organisation, leading a team at Bletchley Park to decrypt German messages. The scrambling of these messages was done daily by a machine called the Enigma, and could be unscrambled by a Nazi receiver.  Enigma machines had billions of different possible settings which were changed every 24 hours, and since the Nazis weren’t going around telling everyone which setting they were using, the Bletchley Park team had to decrypt messages to learn when and where attacks would occur… Every inaccurate or late decryption could be fatal, so Turing and his team faced immense pressure in their early years of codebreaking. 

Turing worked with Polish codebreakers to design and build a computer; famously known as the Bombe. This computer used flaws in the Enigma (such as letters never being scrambled to be the same letter), and could try hundreds of different combinations in a matter of minutes, with the ultimate goal of finding the day’s code settings. At its peak, the Bombe would decode 84,000 messages every month – the information gained cut years from the war and saved millions of lives. 

Bombe | code-breaking machine | Britannica
The Bombe. Image: Britannica.

After the war, Turing applied his genius to several early computer models, contributing to the Manchester Mark One and founding the field of artificial intelligence. However fruitful, Turing’s return to academia was short-lived. A burglary to his home in 1952 revealed that Alan Turing was a homosexual. Before its decriminalisation in 1967, the UK and much of the world deemed this an act of gross indecency. Turing was forced to face imprisonment or hormonal treatment. 

To carry on his research and contribution to the fields of mathematics and artificial intelligence, he chose the latter, which had disastrous effects on Turing’s mental and physical health. Not only was he chemically castrated, but he was also scorned and barred from government communications headquarters – in which he had been a prominent and invaluable member only a few years prior. Betrayed by the country and the people he saved; it is widely believed that Turing took his own life at his home just two years later… 

In the decades after his death, Turing’s accomplishments spread into the public domain. People were outraged to hear of this injustice, and the debt of support for Turing and other gay men who had faced such atrocities started to grow. In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised on behalf of the Government for their part in Turing’s torture and death, also stating:

“This remains a shame on the British Government and British history. A pardon can go some way to healing this damage. It may act as an apology to many of the other gay men, not as well-known as Alan Turing, who were subjected to these laws.”

Gordon Brown, former UK Prime Minister

In 2012, Stephen Hawking joined the fight against this injustice, referring to Turing as “one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the modern era”. A year later, the Queen gave Turing the Royal pardon that he, and countless other gay men, deserved. Finally, in June 2019, 65 years after his death, the war hero was placed on the £50 note next to one of his characteristically enigmatic quotes, “this is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.”

Despite the British Government and monarchy’s efforts to restore Turing’s reputation and rectify the injustices he faced, the publicisation of his torture and subsequent death act as a poignant reminder of the pain many other gay men have endured, and are still enduring in many parts of the world. Turing’s dedication to not only his country but all of humanity forms an integral part of modern history. His contributions to science have helped build the digital world we see today, from the phone in your pocket to the laptop on your desk. Regardless of the awards and bank notes that reward his achievements, the tragedy that cut short his life will forever taint the history of homosexuality, science, and the war effort.  

By Tharushi Wijesiri

Header image: Public domain.