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England apologizes for its treatment of computing legend Alan Turing

A reader sent me a pointer to this article today from the BBC. It is both a profile of Turing and a background piece on why Prime Minister Gordon Brown felt compelled to say this today

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.

So, what happened? I’ve heard of Turing of course, studied the Turing Machine in school, know a little about the Mark I and his pivotal role in breaking the code the Germans used to protect transmissions detailing the movements of German U-boats.

According to Winston Churchill, Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.

But I did not know that he was gay, and gay at a time when being gay would land you in jail. Turing avoided actual jail time after his conviction for “gross indency” in 1952 by undergoing experimental hormone treatments. Two years later, and less than two decades after he saved England from annihilation by the Nazis, he killed himself at his home. According to his biographer, Dr Andrew Hodge

His relationship with the state, the state which he had helped to save essentially in the 1940s, that is the crucial background to his death.

Today PM Gordon Brown apologized for his country’s treatment of Turing. Better than nothing, I guess, but this story really sours my weekend.

In 1936 he established the conceptual and philosophical basis for the rise of computers in a seminal paper called On Computable Numbers and in 1950 he devised a test to measure the intelligence of a machine. Today it is known as the Turing Test.

After the war he worked at many institutions including the University of Manchester, where he worked on the Manchester Mark 1, one of the first recognisable modern computers.

Imagine what other things that mind could have accomplished had it been allowed to continue to flourish.

Comments

  1. We all owe Alan Turing a massive debt of gratitude, both for his work breaking Enigma and his statistical work which paved the way for the building of Colossus by others, which was used to break FISH created by the German Lorenz machines and demonstrated to Turing that the technology was sound and could be pursued further.

    One minor niggle, it was the UK government that apologised, not the English government (there isn’t really one, though Scotland has its own parliament and Wales has its National Assembly).

  2. Chris – eh, it all looks the same from this side of the Atlantic.

    Kidding; thanks for pointing out the error.

  3. keepyourfactsstraight says:

    Saying that Turing cracked the Enigma is only saying half the truth. The Poles cracked the code and created a working copy first between 1932 and 1939 when they shared their findings with the British (lookup Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski, Alfred Knox) . Turing, and the British intelligence people, only continued the effort as the Enigma evolved during WWII. Keep the facts as they are, and give credit where credit is due.

  4. John West says:

    @keep: I don’t believe I said otherwise. Perhaps you are referring to something in the source article.

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