- In 1936 he published a paper, On computable numbers with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem, which – with its theoretical model of a ‘Universal Machine’ capable of performing automatic calculations – established the conceptual basis of the device on which you are reading this, as well as every other modern computer.
- During World War II, in his capacity as leader of Hut 8 at Bletchley Park, he was involved in the cracking of Naval Enigma, a code used in the coordination of U-Boat movements in the Atlantic; the ability to read these messages was crucial to protecting supply convoys between Britain and North America, and therefore to the successful conclusion of the war in Western Europe.
- After the war he worked in computer science at Manchester University, and published an influential paper on machine intelligence; he also continued top-secret work at GCHQ, the successor to Bletchley Park.
- In 1952 – having earlier broken off an engagement to a woman, citing his homosexuality as the reason – he was arrested as a result of a brief sexual liaison with a man; he was convicted, sentenced to a year-long period of chemical castration (considered a progressive and merciful alternative to imprisonment by the court that sentenced him), and was stripped of his security clearance, thus making it impossible for him to continue his work in cryptanalysis.
- In 1954 he took his own life, using a method designed to give his mother grounds to hope he had died accidentally.
Recently, there have been moves to see Turing gain appropriate recognition for his achievements, and to acknowledge the injustices he suffered as a result of his homosexuality. Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, issued a formal apology to Turing on behalf of the British government in 2009. Some have considered this to be a half measure, and have been seeking a pardon for Turing. Recently a private member’s Bill to this effect was placed before the House of Lords. Even more recently, the government have indicated that, if the Bill passes the Lords, they will sponsor its presentation in the Commons on a free vote.
I am a great admirer of Alan Turing (I only wish I had the mathematical ability to understand his ideas more fully). I share the widespread revulsion at the manner in which he was treated, and I also share the feelings of sadness and loss at the circumstances of his death; if things had been different he might well have lived long enough to see the establishment of the ICT revolution he set the stage for, since he would have been 69 when the first email was sent. Despite all this – and despite having been involved in the LGBT rights movement for more than 20 years – I do not support the calls for a pardon. These are the principle reasons why I do not.
1 – It’s unfair to single out Turing.
In his intellect and his achievements Alan Turing was exceptional, but in his experiences as a gay man he was not. Arrests and convictions for ‘indecency between men’ were commonplace. Many veterans of WWII besides Turing were prosecuted for homosexuality on their return to civvy street, with no concessions made for their service to the nation; some of them may still be alive, still trying to come to terms with the injustice they suffered. The only difference is that Turing is known to the public at large, while the others have been forgotten by all but their families and their friends.
Pardoning Turing as a part of a general measure extended to all those men convicted for consenting sex between adults would be one thing. Passing a special law that singles him out for pardon simply rubs salt into the wounds of those many victims of an unjust law who are still alive. Keep in mind that a 22-year-old convicted the year before male homosexuality was decriminalised in England & Wales would currently be 68.
2 – It will further distort Alan Turing’s legacy.
Already you’re considerably more likely to hear Turing praised for his work as a codebreaker than you are for his work in the theory of computing, even though the latter is his most impressive and far-reaching achievement. Already there are seemingly millions of people who think that cracking Nazi codes was an individual – as opposed to collaborative – effort, and that Turing himself is entirely responsible for the two-year shortening of the war attributed to the efforts of the thousands of people who worked at Bletchley Park. That’s because playing up Turing’s credentials as a war hero is useful for those seeking a pardon for him, even if it does involve distorting history. If the pardon is achieved, those distortions will be even harder to resist.
Turing’s sexual orientation should of course not be hushed up, just as the fact of his prosecution and suicide should not be silenced. They are important parts of his biography, and they illuminate wider issues. But there is a world of difference between remembering Turing as a gay mathematician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist who was unjustly treated by the laws of the country he had helped to defend, and distorting his legacy so that he is remembered as “the gay man who won the war”. Those people who want to remake Turing as a martyr of the struggle for gay rights may have entirely honourable reasons for wishing to do so, but that doesn’t alter the fact that to define Turing primarily in terms of his sexual orientation and his sad death is to sell him short. We should remember Turing for his work, since it was that which made him exceptional.
3 – It’s a misguided attempt to “correct” history.
Alan Turing was arrested, charged and convicted for having consensual sex with another man. He was humiliated in front of his family, friends, colleagues and the wider public. He had a barbaric punishment imposed upon him, which caused permanent physiological alterations – he developed breasts. The loss of his security clearance, automatic for any homosexual in the 1950s (but not in the 1940s, when their contributions were essential to the war effort), left him unable to continue a significant element of his life’s work. He died in full and bitter knowledge of all of this, and with no expectation that anything would change. He killed himself in the belief that the achievements of his life had effectively been set at naught, simply because he refused to suppress his attraction to men.
The desire to pardon Turing is in effect a desire to reach back into history and correct all that. It’s an attempt to assert that we can in some way “do right” by Turing, but we can’t. There is nothing we can do to alter the injustice to which Turing was subjected, or ameliorate the misery of his final years. The only thing we can do now is to make sure that we never forget. That’s what we should always do with evidence of past barbarity: talk about it, teach the details to each new generation, and make sure that we remember the lessons we’ve learned. For that we need to look at history with an eye for what it can teach us about the present and the future, not with a view to tidying up past mistakes.