Alan Turing is considered by many as the face and father of computer science.
For others, he is considered a face of the LGBT community; a war hero persecuted for his sexuality, despite leading Great Britain to victory during the Second World War.
Some would describe him as the face of Artificial Intelligence (AI), but now as the face of the new £50, this Manchester idol has finally been recognised for what he really is- a true British icon.
Alan Turing was born on 23rd June 1912 in Maida Vale, London. At the age of 9, he was hailed a ‘genius’ by this headmistress at St Michael’s Primary school and in 1934, graduated with a first-class honours degree in Mathematics from King’s College, University of Cambridge, aged 22.
Two years later, he attended Princeton University and obtained his Ph.D in 1938, all the while developing the notion of a ‘universal computing machine’, created to solve complex calculations. This would later become known as the Turing Machine what many would describe as the first computer.
During his time at Princeton, Turing also studied cryptology and in 1939, was recruited to join the Government Codes and Cypher School full-time at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, following the breakout of the Second World War.
With fellow code-breaker Gordon Welchman by his side, together they invented a machine known as ‘Bombe’, allowing British intelligence to read German Air Force signals. A huge landmark for British intelligence, no one would ever predict – not even Turing himself – how indispensable his work would be in the following years.
Turing accomplished a lot during his time at Bletchely Park and was appointed head of the ‘Hut 8’ team who carried out cryptanalysis of all German naval systems using his ‘Banburismus’ technique.
To put it simply, Turing and his team helped Allied forces avoid ‘wolf-pack’ clusters of enemy U-Boats which helped them survive the Battle of the Atlantic – one of the most pivotal moments in the war.
Whilst the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of men cannot be forgotten or ignored, the reality is that without the tireless help of Alan Turing, Britain would have most likely lost the Second World War and it’s hard to say whether any of us would be here today.
In 1942 he developed yet another code-breaking technique called ‘Turingery’ that yet again contributed greatly to the Allied war effort. The same year he travelled to the United States and advised US military intelligence in the use of Bombe machines; sharing his knowledge of Enigma.
As the war came to a close, he was awarded an OBE for his work and returned to the UK to further his design for what many call the first computer, the ‘Universal Turing Machine’.
In 1948, Turing was appointed reader at the Mathematics Department at the Victoria University of Manchester and became Deputy Director of the Computing Machine Laboratory a year later. Here, he worked on the software for one of the earliest stored-program computers known as the Manchester Mark 1.
A genius, a hero, an innovator – Alan Turing was one of the greatest mind’s to ever exist. But following an arrest in January 1952, aged 39, his life’s work and reputation would turn to dust.
On a cold night in December 1951, Turing was walking along Manchester’s Oxford Road when he met Arnold Murray, an unemployed 19-year-old man outside the Regal Cinema. On the 23rd of January the following year, his house was burgled and Murray was quick to identify the burglar with whom he was acquainted.
After reporting this incident to the Police, Turing admitted to an illegal sexual relationship with Murray and both men were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.
He had no choice but enter a guilty plea and was given the choice of imprisonment or chemical castration following his conviction. As well as being stripped of all dignity, he had his security clearance revoked and was barred from continuing his work with the Government Communications Headquarters.
His life was ruined, and he would never come back from it.
On the 8th June 1954, Alan Turing was found dead at the age of 41 following suicide by cyanide poisoning. It would be 55 years before the government issued a formal apology and pardon in 2009, following a petition started by British programmer, John Graham-Cumming, which received over 30,000 signatures.
It would be 55 years before the world would learn what a monumental contribution this man made to his country, 55 years before he received the respect he had always deserved.
At last, Alan Turing is celebrated and honoured for his unparalleled efforts during the war and in the study of computer science. Without him, the world would be a very different place and his legacy will live on forever through science and the LGBT community.
Now taking his place amongst the ‘greats’ such as William Shakespeare and Jane Eyre, the new £50 note is more than just a piece of paper. It’s a reminder that one person, no matter their sexuality, can truly change the world.
Here’s to you, Alan Turing.