Alan Turing is a tragic and triumphant figure in World Word II history. He was a mathematician, code breaker, computer pioneer, artificial intelligence theoretician, and now serves as a gay/cultural icon. Turing’s genius assisted Winston Churchill et al to intercept Nazi codes and thwart Hitler’s military efforts during the U-boat war. It was a crucial contribution. The convoys set out from North America loaded with vast cargoes of essential supplies for Britain, but the U-boats’ torpedoes were sinking so many of the ships that Churchill’s analysts said Britain would soon be starving. “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril,” Churchill said later. Perhaps Turing was the original computer hacker.
Turing was a genius in cryptographic theory, and although he briefly figured in early newspaper accounts of British computers, and spoke on BBC radio twice, he never forwarded himself as the person who conceived of the computer in 1936. Ten years later he showed how to make it practical. No one probed him about this question. Turing helped adapt a device originally developed by Poland to create the bombe. Turing’s treatise on Enigma was a major factor in breaking Nazi code. He was a key player in the battle to decrypt the coded messages generated by Enigma, the German military’s typewriter-like cipher machine. Turing pitted machine against machine. The prototype model of his anti-Enigma “bombe”, named simply Victory, was installed in the spring of 1940. His bombes turned Bletchley Park into a code breaking factory. As early as 1943 Turing’s machines were cracking a staggering total of 84,000 Enigma messages each month; two messages every minute.The faster messages could be broken, the fresher the intelligence they contained; on at least one occasion the Enigma message’s English translation was being read at the British Admiralty less than 15 minutes after the Germans had transmitted it.
On the first day of war, at the beginning of September 1939, Turing took up residence at Bletchley Park, the ugly Victorian Buckinghamshire mansion that served as the wartime HQ of Britain’s top code breakers. Details of Turing’s code breaking activities at Bletchley Park were not disclosed until the 1970s. This would prove a major obstacle after the war. Now the Bletchley Park Museum proudly puts him at the centre of the code breaking that helped weaken Nazi military strategy.Some historians estimate that Bletchley Park’s massive code breaking operation, especially the breaking of U-boat Enigma, shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years.
If Turing and his group had not weakened the U-boats’ hold on the North Atlantic, the 1944 Allied invasion of Europe – the D-Day landings – could have been delayed, perhaps by about a year or even longer, since the North Atlantic was the route that ammunition, fuel, food and troops had to travel in order to reach Britain from America. Any delay in the timing of the invasion, even a delay of less than a year, would have put Hitler in a stronger position to withstand the Allied assault. At a conservative estimate, each year of the fighting in Europe brought on average about seven million deaths, so the significance of Turing’s contribution can be roughly quantified in terms of the number of additional lives that might have been lost if he had not achieved what he did.
After an athletics meeting on Boxing Day 1946, a sports reporter, who was aware of his life as designer of the “electronic brain”, interviewed him. Turing was reported as “diffident” about his prowess, and credited Americans for the “donkey work”. This self-effacement, mixed with a dark hint that he contributed something better than “donkey work” to the computer, typified the cryptic, humble way he spoke of himself. Perhaps that should be no surprise: Turing spoke the way he thought, in code and the interpretation of code. That most other people couldn’t interpret it adequately didn’t seem to matter.
Turing was arrested on 7 February 1952 for his affair with a 19-year-old unemployed Manchester man, Arnold Murray,whom he had met outside the Regal Cinema when walking down Manchester’s Oxford Road just before Christmas .On 23 January Turing’s house was burgled. Murray told Turing that the burglar was an acquaintance of his, and Turing reported the crime to the police. During the investigation he acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray, sealing his fate. Homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time, and both men were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. Criminal proceedings for the trial occurred on 27 February, where Turing’s lawyer”reserved his defence”. Later, convinced by the advice of his brother and other lawyers, Turing entered a plea of “guilty“, in spite of the fact that he felt no remorse or guilt for having committed criminal acts of homosexuality. As an alternative to prison, he accepted injections of female hormones, stilboestrol, intended to reduce his libido (chemical castration) for one year. As a result of the injections, he grew breasts (gynecomastia) and his voice became higher, more effeminate. His beard growth ceased. In spite of the incredible contributions to the Allieds during the war, Turing was rewarded with public humiliation and a barbaric punishment. Turing predicted that “no doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.” Still, for the remainder of his life, a black cloud hung over his scientific reputation.
In 1952 and again in 1953 he insisted on holidays abroad, in Norway and Greece, explicitly for freedom from British law, and very likely influenced by hearing of the early Scandinavian gay movement. His ears pricked up at a hint of modernity.
But as a gay man, Turing was particularly unlucky. In 1948 when he decided to have a more positive gay life was when there was a change from silence to active persecution against homosexuality by the British government. Contrary to public misinterpretation, Turing did not commit suicide out of shame from being outed and placed on trial. Turing’s conviction led to the removal of his security clearance, and barred him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). He also cryptically referred to a “crisis” in 1953, which seemed to have involved intense surveillance. It is for this very special and secret reason that his life in 1954 might well have seemed impossible to bear.
Turing died in 1954, two weeks shy of his 42nd birthday. On 8 June 1954, Turing’s cleaner found him dead. He had died the previous day. A post-mortem examination established that the cause of death was potassium cyanide poisoning. When his body was discovered, an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide, it was speculated that this was the means by which a fatal dose was consumed. The apple however also served as a grim joke against his reputation for impracticality, allowing those who wanted to believe it, that he had ingested the poison by mistake. Turing knew the apple as an icon of death in the Snow White story. This suspicion was strengthened when his fascination with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was revealed, especially the transformation of the Queen into the Witch and the ambiguity of the poisoned apple. It may have served as a metaphor to the physical changes he underwent while receiving stilboestrol.
Professor Jack Copeland has questioned various aspects of the coroner’s historical verdict, suggesting an accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes from an apparatus for gold electroplating spoons, using potassium cyanide to dissolve the spoons. Copeland notes that the autopsy findings were more consistent with inhalation than with ingestion of the poison. Turing also habitually ate an apple before bed, and it was not unusual for it to be discarded half-eaten. In addition, Turing had reportedly borne his legal setbacks and hormone treatment, which had been discontinued a year previously, “with good humour.” He had set down a list of tasks he intended to complete upon return to his office after the holiday weekend. Indeed, at the time, Turing’s mother believed that the ingestion was accidental, caused by her son’s careless storage of laboratory chemicals. Biographer Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing may have arranged the cyanide experiment deliberately, to give his mother some plausible deniability. Even after death, Turing fittingly communicated using cryptic code.