In the centenary of his birth, mathematician, code-breaker and pioneer of computer science, Alan Turing has been honored with a Royal Mail commemorative stamp, but has as yet to be pardoned over his conviction, in 1952, for being gay.
Turing was a central figure in the development of the computer. In 1936, he proposed a theoretical “Universal Machine”, which could carry out any calculation by following a stored program. He was also an essential part to Britain’s victory in the Second World War through his work at Bletchley Park, where he turned his “Universal machine” into a working computer. After the war, he intended to manufacture his machine as the first general purpose computer. He also pondered the question of a computer’s ability to think for itself, and proposed the Turing test as a way of measuring a computer’s intelligence.
Yet, for all his hard work for the state, he was shown no leniency when arrested in 1952 for admitting to sexual acts with a man. Homosexuality was illegal in England at this time, but Turing had no fear or shame over who he was. As the police noted when Turing gave his confession: “He was a real convert…he really believed he was doing the right thing.”
By doing the right thing, being brave, and proud in who he was, Turing was punished by the choice of imprisonment or chemical castration. He opted for the latter. He was also stripped of his security clearance and barred form working on or advising on any government matters.
In 1954, his career ruined, his life all but destroyed, Turing committed suicide by eating an apple injected with cyanide.
A tragic end to a man who did so much for others.
In 2009, John Graham-Cumming successfully organized a petition urging the British Government to posthumously apologise to Alan Turing for prosecuting him as a homosexual. This happened when then Prime Gordon Brown released a statement, which read:
‘Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. 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 ... So 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.’
But sometimes saying ‘sorry’ is not enough, and in December 2011, William Jones started a petition which states:
We ask the HM Government to grant a pardon to Alan Turing for the conviction of ‘gross indecency’. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ with another man and was forced to undergo so-called ‘organo-therapy’ - chemical castration. Two years later, he killed himself with cyanide, aged just 41. Alan Turing was driven to a terrible despair and early death by the nation he’d done so much to save. This remains a shame on the UK government and UK history. A pardon can go to some way to healing this damage. It may act as an apology to many of the other gay men, not as well known as Alan Turing, who were subjected to these laws.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Turing’s birth and it is now time to clear his name of the terrible injustice that was meted out to him, and other gay men. You can sign the petition here.
Bonus - The Achievements of Alan Turing