Sunday, 13 September 2009

HM Government apologises to Alan Turing

(By Philip Carnelley, 13 Sep 09, 20:00) At Manchester University in the late 1970s, I studied maths and computer science, where I was introduced to the work of Alan Turing, the British maths genius who in the 1930s devised the theoretical model that shows what all of today’s computers can – and cannot – do. Turing’s last appointment was as a Reader in Mathematics at Manchester, working on (amongst other things) the Manchester Mark I, the immediate predecessor of the Ferranti Mark I, the world’s first commercially available general-purpose computer.

At that time, I also went to see a friend who was training to become an air-traffic controller, at the ATC’s residential training college at a place called Bletchley Park. Like most people then, I had never heard of Bletchley. He told me some of its history and its work on breaking the wartime Enigma codes, and I saw the famous huts where the mathematicians, philosophers, crossword-puzzlers et al did their work. I can’t recall whether he mentioned Turing. But I learnt all about Turing’s pivotal code-breaking work, and his whole fascinating life-story, from the excellent biography of him published in 1983: Alan Turing, The Enigma of Intelligence, by Andrew Hodges. Three years later I dragged my wife along to see a West End stage play of his life, starring Derek Jacobi as Turing. A superb performance, it went to Broadway and was broadcast on BBC TV.

Turing’s fame is now widespread: the US’s Association for Computing Machinery has called its most prestigious technical prize the Turing award; in 1999 Time magazine named Turing one of the “100 Most Important People of the 20th Century”. He was given an OBE at the end of the war, though his work remained secret. But his was a very sad end. He was convicted of homosexual behaviour in 1952 and given the choice of a prison sentence or chemical castration by hormone treatment to “cure his illness”. He chose the latter. Two years later he took his own life by cyanide poisoning.

That’s not a good way to treat the man whose genius helped save the country and laid the theoretical foundations for the entire IT industry. It is therefore some comfort that, following an e-petition to the Government – the number one e-petition since April this year – Gordon Brown issued an apology last Friday, 10 September, on behalf of the British Government, recognising the “appalling” way he was treated. While it’s rather political, and doesn’t mention his contribution to the development of computing/IT, it does at least include these words:

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. … While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him…. 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.

There’s an excellent summary of Turing’s life and work on Wikipedia.

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