Turing Centenary: The Lost History and The Government Apology
‘The Lost History and The Government Apology’ looks at how Turing’s secret work was finally acknowledged in the 1980s and the British government’s 2009 public apology for Turing’s treatment.
The full extent of Alan Turing’s work as a cryptanalyst in the Second World War, and on the development of both the computer and Artificial Intelligence, remained concealed until the 1980s. “The fallout of his arrest and suicide,” writes David Leavitt in The Man Who Knew Too Much, “was that for years his contribution to the development of the modern computer was minimised and in some instances erased altogether.” The computer scientist John McCarthy may have coined the phrase in 1955, but it was Alan Turing who had first explored the question “Can machines think?” That work remained unacknowledged until the declassification of the documents that related to his code-breaking working at Bletchley Park, and the publication of Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: The Enigma in 1983.
By the 1990s, Alan Turing’s reputation as a mathematician and as the father of the modern computer had been inserted into the historical narrative. His homosexuality, and his conviction for “gross indecency contrary to Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885”, however, was still regarded as the one disgrace on his career. In 1967, homosexual acts were legalised in England and Wales, but only for men over the age of 21. Turing’s affair was with the 19 year-old Arnold Murray. It was not until 1994 that the age of consent for gay men was set at 18, and it was not equalised at 16 until 2000. Nevertheless, any criminal conviction before 1967 remains on the statutes, although with the introduction of the Protection of Freedoms Act in May, 2012, a man who was so convicted can appeal to have the sentence expunged.
In August 2009, the British programmer John Graham-Cumming started a petition for the government to issue an apology for the treatment of Alan Turing. He also wrote to the Queen to ask that Turing be awarded a posthumous knighthood. The political apology is, nevertheless, all too often political marketing in disguise. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were adepts at apologising for past wrongs on the one hand and making foreign policy decisions for which future leaders will have to apologise on the other.
The apology, issued in September 2009, only weeks after the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, served the interests of the government. Gordon Brown’s statement was, for the most part, wide of the mark. “Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes,” opens one paragraph. The phrase “quite brilliant” is an ill-considered choice of words. It’s more akin to public school praise. It would be like calling Einstein “quite brilliant”. Furthermore, by this time Turing was “most famous” as the man who conceived of the modern computer. That didn’t fit with Brown’s invocation of the war, and his celebration of the British body politic that had condemned Turing. “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.” This cynical apology for Turing was, nevertheless, an important step both for Turing’s reputation and for gay rights, if only because it led to the 2012 petition to pardon Turing and remove his criminal standing from the books.
2012 is Alan Turing Year. Polari Magazine marks the centenary of his birth in a series of articles about his life, his work, and his legacy.
Read Part One in this series of articles here.
Alan Mathison Turing was born on 23 June, 1912. He was a mathematician, cryptanalyst and the father of computer science. His pioneering work in the 1930s cracked the Nazi’s Enigma codes in World War II, and led to the invention of the modern computer. Turing died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning, two years after he was convicted for homosexual activity and branded a security risk.