In Memory of Alan Turing

Since I still haven’t finished setting up the Almost Fabulous site, I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at this week’s tribute to Alan Turing. You can find the audio version (complete with bonus jokes!) in episode 11 of the radio show, downloadable from iTunes or direct from here.

alan turing

When we started the Almost Fabulous project, all those years ago, our goal was to bring attention and love to those potential queer icons who had been left out in the cold. At that time I considered including mathematician and cryptologist Alan Turing, but decided he was already a well-known and celebrated figure. After all, he has been the subject of award-winning plays and documentaries, and in 1999 Time Magazine named him as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

But since the comments of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown put Turing back in the media this month, I thought it was time to re-acquaint ourselves with this extraordinary gay man.

In the 1930s Turing was a mathematician working at Cambridge and later Princeton University, working on algorithms, theories of computation and – like any uni student – building simple electro-mechanical binary multipliers. Little did he know that years later his work would lead to the personal computer and the most efficient porn delivery system the world has ever known.

But as important as his work on computers is – and seriously, without him we wouldn’t be able to watch footage of cats on treadmills on YouTube, so for that alone, Mr Turing, we salute you – it’s his work during World War II that makes him a bona-fide hero.

1939. Beer Barrel Polka is number one in the charts, the Coronet is the hairstyle all the young girls are after, and the world is plunged into war. On the 4th of September, the day after the UK declares war on Germany, Alan Turing reports to Bletchley Park – also known as Station X – which is to be the wartime home of the Government Code and Cipher School. Here his team will attempt to break the Enigma code.

The German military were sending their messages encrypted with Enigma machines, so while the English could intercept the messages they couldn’t decipher them. An Enigma machine looked a little like a typewriter, but the addition of three rotating discs meant that any letter typed into it would come out as a different letter, creating a seemingly meaningless message. The receiver would then type that message into an Enigma machine with identical settings, allowing the meaning to be revealed. It was a sophisticated system the Germans believed was unbreakable, and was certainly a step up from their World War I practice of writing messages in lemon juice.

Turing helped devise and build a machine which could help break the codes. The methodology is obviously too complicated to explain in a piece as shallow as this one, but it hinged on the fact that no letter could ever appear as itself, and that the military mind was largely predictable.

The English intercepted and decoded many vital messages at Bletchley Park, and it’s generally agreed this information helped to shorten the war. Although it did also lead to a film starring Saffron Burrows and Dougray Scott, so it’s not all good.

The Germans were never aware their codes had been broken, and at the end of the war Winston Churchill ordered much of the equipment and buildings destroyed to keep that secret. The work at Bletchley Park only started to become general knowledge in the 1970, and it was only in the 1990s that full details of the work there became known.

bletchley park

In the immediate post-war years Turing continued to be heavily involved in the development of the computer. In 1948 he wrote a chess program years before any computer was powerful enough to be able to run it, as well as an early prototype of Halo 3 for the Xbox 360 (that second bit’s a lie).

He was awarded an OBE for his work in the war, but due to the secrecy no-one knew exactly what or how important or even whither his work had been. And it’s here that things get really depressing.

In 1952 Turing was charged with gross indecency, due to consensual sex he had in the privacy of his own home. He was given a choice between imprisonment or chemical castration via oestrogen injections, and he chose the latter. He lost his security clearance, was barred from working with the Code and Cipher School, was denied entry to the United States and bizarrely he grew breasts from the oestrogen injections. For a war hero, his treatment was nothing less than shameful.

On the 8th June 1954, Turing’s cleaner found him dead in his home – he had committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

As the years went by, Turing’s work – both wartime and in computing generally – became known and celebrated. Since 1966, the Turing Award has been the computing world’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize, and The Turing Test is well-known in computing circles. Developed by Turing in 1950, the object of the exercise – to put it at it’s most basic, and then grossly over-simplify that – is to see if a computer could pass as human in an unscripted conversation.

As the years have passed Turing’s name has also been honoured on buildings, bridges, postage stamps and statues. In the late 80s a play about Turing, Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore, ran on London’s West End before transferring to Broadway. It was adapted for television in 1996, with Derek Jacobi as Turing.

But the reason we talk about Turing today is that on the 10th of September the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Gordon Brown, issued a formal apology for the way he was treated. After years of former prime minister John Howard treating us like second-class citizens, and the police brutality in a raid on a gay bar in Atlanta this week, it’s truly astonishing to read see a political leader treating the queer community with such dignity and respect:

Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone… This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Sadly Breaking The Code does not seem to be available on DVD, but you might be able to find a copy of the excellent documentary series Station X – The Codebreakers Of Bletchley Park on VHS. Remember VHS?

One Response to In Memory of Alan Turing

  1. Sophie says:

    This was one of the two Almost Fabulous I cried during. An amazing story, with a tragic ending. Damnit, John, can we have an Almost Fabulous that doesn’t end in suicide who isn’t fictional or a doll? No? Okay.

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