Alan Turing
by Beth Roberts

Alan Turing. Image sourced through Wikimedia Commons

A young boy who spent his early years holidaying in a Guildford home became the father of computer science and helped the Allied powers win the Second World War. Alan Turing, a computing pioneer who built on fellow Surrey resident Ada Lovelace’s programming ideas, is not only a significant person in computing history but also in Britain’s queer history.

Born in Maida Vale in 1912 to Julius Mathison Turing and Ethel Sara Turing, Turing spent his childhood years living with his parents and with a retired Army couple. Turing’s parents were originally stationed in India due to Julius’ position with the Indian Civil Service under the British Raj. They returned to Britain to raise their children, but still spent time in India, leaving Turing and his siblings in Hastings.

From the age of thirteen, Turing attended the independent boarding school, Sherborne in Dorset. It was here where his mathematical brain blossomed and also where he met his “first love” (Hodges, 1992: 35): Christopher Morcom. His penchant for mathematics and his sexuality thus became forever entwined. As G. S. Voss notes, “the men who were his romantic attachments and object of his affections […] provided inspiration and a sounding board for his thoughts” (2013: 573).

After his graduation, Turing went on to study Mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge, where he later became a Fellow and served as a lecturer, due to the strength of his master’s dissertation. He then completed his PhD at Princeton, under the supervision of famous mathematician, Alonzo Church.

Turing was hired to help break ciphers at Bletchley Park when the Second World War broke out. He provided the specification for the bombe machine, which was able to break Enigma faster than the pre-existing electromagnetic machine, the Polish bomba. After his code-breaking success, Turing specified designs for the first stored-program computers and developed what would later become known as the Turing test; this test considers whether a computer can ‘think’ and is the basis for the CAPTCHA test which tries to discover if a user is a machine or human.

In a stain upon Britain’s queer history, Turing was arrested and charged with “gross indecency with another male” (Leavitt, 2006: 268), after reporting a burglary at his house. As Leavitt notes “instead of arresting the thief, they arrested his victim” after “putting two and two together” (2006: 268) and realising Turing was involved in a sexual relationship with Arnold Murray. Turing was then subjected to chemical castration and injected with oestrogen, which had a devastating psychological impact on him. On June 8th 1954, Turing was found dead by his housekeeper; he had died the previous day after taking a fatal dose of cyanide. It is speculated that he consumed the cyanide by covering an apple in the poison and taking a bite. Turing was later pardoned posthumously by Queen Elizabeth II in August 2014.

Statue of Alan Turing. Image sourced through Wikimedia Commons

Turing’s legacy lives on; his achievements and impact cannot be understated. Some of you may have seen the Academy Award and BAFTA-nominated The Imitation Game (Tyldum, 2014), starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and focusing on the mathematician’s incredible work in helping Allied forces break the Enigma code. If you own an Apple product, you may have noticed that the symbol is an apple with a chunk taken out of it: this references Turing’s supposed suicide and emphasises his importance in shaping modern computing. We even have a statue of Turing at the University of Surrey, just out the front of the Austin Pearce building, cementing him as an inspiration for mathematicians, computer programmers, and powerful LGBTQ+ minds to this day.

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