Alan Turing — The chemically castrated father of computer science
from behind-the-scenes war hero to state criminal
What was it like to be a homosexual man in the 1950s? For Alan Turing, it overshadowed his achievements, contributions to the war against Nazi Germany and cryptoanalysis for more than half a century.
While in academic circles Alan Turing was respected by his peers for his work, popular media, culture and the legal system condemned him for his sexual orientation back in the 50s.
In December 2011, a petition was created by William Jones requesting the British government to pardon Turing from his conviction of “gross indecency”. It gained over 37,000 signatures but Justice Minister Lord McNally advocated against it to preserve the historical context of the judgment and maintain the standard of law.
McNally argued that Turing knew that it was against the law to perform sexual acts with another man, proceeded to break it, and admitted to it without contest. While the law itself is now regarded as archaic, and ultimately cruel, McNally argues that Parliament should —
accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.
It took another year and several more petitions, including support from Stephen Hawking, Astronomer Royal Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society Sir Paul Nurse, and Lady Trumpington who worked for Turing during the war, for the House of Lords to grant a statutory pardon for Turing’s conviction on 31 March 1952. However, the actual pardon did not pass and circulated around parliament for another year. By 24 December 2013, the matter reached Queen Elizabeth II. She signed a pardon for Turing’s conviction with immediate effect, despite not being technically ‘innocent’ under the law of the time.
This led to a human rights advocate, Peter Tatchell, criticizing the decision to only apply the pardon to Turing because of his fame and achievements. Others that were convicted under to old law did not receive the same preferential treatment. In September 2016, the government decided to retroactive exonerate men convicted of similar indecency offenses, leading it to be dubbed the ‘Alan Turing law’.
Suicide or accidental death?
The cause of Alan Turing’s death is often linked to his homosexual conviction in 1952.
On June 7th 1954, Turing was found dead by his housekeeper. A half-eaten apple sat next to his bed, and stories circulated that the fatal fruit was dipped with cyanide and provided the final dose needed to send him to the other side. While there was no prince to come and wake him, as Snow White had in Walt Disney’s 1937 depiction of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the apple was never officially tested. The theory could only prove itself as speculation.
Jack Copeland, a philosophy professor, came up with an alternative theory that went against the coroner’s historical verdict. Copeland suggested that Turing death was caused by the accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes that came from a device that was used to electroplate gold onto spoons. Potassium cyanide in the spare room for dissolving gold.
Copeland argues that Turing habitually ate an apple before going to bed, and despite his legal setbacks and hormone therapy, Turing showed no signs of ‘despondency’ prior to his death. There was a list of tasks he had written up for after his holiday weekend, and his mother believed that his death was accidental rather than suicide.
The Turing Machine and why it matters
The first mechanical computer was created by Charles Babbage, back in 1822. The idea of a computer was centered around the idea that a machine could perform calculations and imprint results in some form. Alan Turing took it one step further and created a device in 1936 that was capable of printing symbols on paper tape that emulated a person that was following a set of logical instructions.
This machine, commonly known as the ‘Turing machine’, was the first of its kind. The theoretical modeling behind it became the foundation of computer science as we currently know it.
While Turing’s computer doesn’t exactly resemble the myriad of devices available today, it was revolutionary in that it was ‘intelligent’ enough to output an outcome based on a series of pre-configured instructions. The pre-configuration is also known as ‘the algorithm’.
Due to the wide nature of computational programs that the theory needed to cover, Turing had to figure out a theory that could encompass anything that needed to be translated.
The Turing machine, in its simplest form, works like this —
- imagine an indefinite tape with cells inside.
- now imagine a ‘machine’ that scrolls back and forth reading the values inside the cell, changing values of other cells as required if the conditions of changing them are met
- each cell can contain only 1 or 0
- a particular combination of 1 or 0 corresponds to a particular rule in a table of rules
- the printed combination of values represents ‘memory’ stored and can be representative of anything you want it to be
This methodology, known as the Turing machine, would eventually transform into the basis of the binary system that governs how a computer’s CPU works.
A major contributor to the digital world we now inhabit
Turing’s death came in 1954, two years after his foray into mathematical biology. One of his final works contributed to the idea of morphogenesis, which is the development of shapes and patterns in biological organisms.
While his paper on the topic was published before knowledge about DNA, its role, and functionality for living organisms became widespread, his untimely death leaves a series of what-if theories. what-if he was never convicted of homosexuality? what-if he was never chemically castrated? what-if he actually went through with the marriage proposal to Joan Clarke and had children? what-if he hadn’t died to cyanide poisoning that may or may not have been deliberate?
Whatever the what-ifs, there is no doubt that Alan Turing is highly gifted in his ability to understand and synthesize the application of mathematics beyond its pure forms. It was this gift that gave Britain the edge of Nazi Germany’s encryption machines (and eventually helping them win the war), laid the foundation of future computational devices, and the digital world as we currently know it.