A story in the New York Times’ Christmas Eve edition caught my attention and made me want to write this. The headline is no help in deciphering the meaning of the content for most generations alive today but it says, “Alan Turing, Enigma Code-Breaker and Computer Pioneer, Wins Royal Pardon.” Who? What?
Alan Turing was not just some Brit who got a pardon and his life, which ended tragically 60 years ago, still affects all of us. Turing was one of the earliest computer scientists but he was also a mathematician, logician, and cryptanalyst and it was in this latter occupation that he most visibly impacted the world in his lifetime. During World War II he led a group at Bletchley Park that broke the German Naval cypher used to communicate with U-Boats cruising the Atlantic to sink Allied shipping.
It was a big deal. Had the U-Boats been any more successful, I might be writing this in German. Turing wasn’t the only person working on codes at Bletchley Park and part of the success of his group’s work came as a result of daring naval battles in which British and American destroyers captured German submarines to get the code books and the all important Enigma Machines that made the almost unbreakable German code possible. Think about that, capturing a boat that’s designed to sink in the middle of the ocean by removing its crew with extreme prejudice.
For a long time the Enigma story was top secret. Until Turing’s other idea — the modern digital computer — became powerful enough to be used in codes and code breaking, the little electro-mechanical device developed between the wars was the ultimate code making thing ever devised. You can read up on all of this today in popular books like, “Enigma: The Battle For The Code” by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. There’s even a play, “Breaking the Code” that was popular in the 1980’s.
Prior to the war and code breaking, Turnig was a prescient computer scientist and according to the Times article, “In a 1936 research paper, Mr. Turing anticipated a computing machine that could perform different tasks by altering its software, rather than its hardware.” No doubt about it, Turing was a genius and he did much for humanity so it’s incomprehensible that his fellow humans treated him so shabbily later on, which brings us to the matter of the pardon.
Turing was a homosexual, which was a crime in Britain in 1952 when he was found out, tried, and convicted for gross indecency. He died two years later and while his death was ruled a suicide by cyanide some believe it was accidental and that he had eaten an apple that had become contaminated by some chemistry experiments he was conducting at home. Even geniuses can do some amazingly silly things. Speaking of chemistry, Turing avoided prison for his conviction by submitting to “chemical castration” in which he was injected with female sex hormones. But enough of this, you can consult online sources for more.
What’s baffling is that it took 60 years for this modicum of justice to trickle down, but I wonder if Turing would have even accepted a pardon, if he was still alive, for simply being who he was. Possibly more insulting is that when given the opportunity of issuing a pardon the first time (2012), the current British prime minister, David Cameron, denied the request. It took an online petition campaign that raised more than 35,000 signatures to get the job done.
When we look back at human progress it can be inspiring to consider all that has happened in the ten thousand years between ice ages that we’ve grown up in. That is unless you are measuring things in human life spans, in which case the difference between events can seem like infinity, because in a sense, it is. Regardless, I feel like I owe Turing a big thank you for my job and for the world I live in and I hope others feel that way too.
Happy New Year!