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.
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.
‘The Trial of Alan Turing for Homosexual Conduct’ looks at the circumstances that led to Turing’s criminal conviction for homosexual conduct in 1952, and his death in 1954.
In 1936, when he was a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, Alan Turing put forward the theoretical idea of a universal machine; a machine that, like the human brain, could perform set tasks without being physically reconfigured. When the Second World War broke out he enlisted as a cryptanalyst, and in his work he used a machine that, like Enigma, was built using a series of rotors and therefore needed to be manually reconfigured in order to complete its function. After the war, and with a greater understanding of engineering, he returned to the idea of the universal machine, and started to develop the first digital computer, a project in which the government was invested because of its potential use in developing an atomic bomb. Turing continued his work when he was appointed Reader in Mathematics at the University of Manchester in 1948.
In December 1951, Turing met the 19 year-old working class lad, Arnold Murray. He took Murray to lunch, talked about his work on the “electronic brain”, and then asked him to his house that weekend. Although Murray did not turn up, they met again by chance in January, and started on an affair. Turing was protective, and he wanted to offer Murray a future, to open his mind to possibilities of science. Instead Murray took a tenner from Turing’s wallet, although he later “half convinced” Turing he hadn’t. When Turing’s house was burgled on January 23 the suspicion fell on Murray.
Turing reported the burglary, and police officers in turn took fingerprints. On the advice of a solicitor, Turing wrote to Murray to revive the question of the missing tenner and to break off the friendship. Murray turned up on Turing’s door, angrily protested his innocence, and threatened to go to the police about the affair. He retracted the threat, then ended up in Turing’s bed after telling him he thought the burglary was committed by an unemployed acquaintance called Harry. In the night, Turing put away a glass with Murray’s fingerprints on it, which he then turned over to the police along with a fabricated story about how it had come into his possession.
The police had in fact identified Harry’s fingerprints at the crime scene, and it did not take them long to figure out from his statement exactly what had been going on. When Turing was questioned he was trapped in a lie about how he knew Murray, and when confronted he nervously blurted out the truth. The detectives in charge of the case, who had the unlikely names of Mr Wills and Mr Rimmer, went after Turing for the crime of “Gross indecency contrary to Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885”. In other words: homosexual conduct.
In the early 1950s, there was a renewed panic about homosexuality. The paranoid style of US politics – the force behind Richard Nixon’s witch hunts under the guise of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the rise of that quintessential charlatan, Joe McCarthy – had changed the social and political landscape in Britain. As the old British Empire fell apart, and the conflict between the West and the Communist East dictated post-war policy, the search for scapegoats was inevitable. It was an era of over-simplistic social conservatism, and thus homosexuality was revived as a corrupting and weakening influence that needed to be stamped out.
On March 31, 1952, the case of Regina vs. Turing and Murray was heard. Turing was defended as a “national asset” for his work on the development of the computer. His OBE, awarded for services during the war, was brought into play. This did not make any difference to the verdict. At any rate, Turing’s work on cracking Enigma, and building a computer that would play a part in the development of a British atomic bomb, was not part of the record. He was branded a “security risk” and duly sacrificed.
What the court offered Turing was a choice: a prison sentence, or a “treatment” for his homosexuality, organo-therapy, which was in effect a form of chemical castration. “It is supposed to reduce sexual urge whilst it goes on, but one is supposed to return to normal when it is over,” Turing wrote in a letter to a friend on April 17. “I hope they’re right.” The effects of the organo-therapy were not as straightforward as Turing hoped. He grew breasts as a result of the oestrogen, suffered bouts of depression, and started to see a therapist.
Alan Turing died as a result of cyanide poisoning on June 7, 1954. There was an apple at the side of his bed. The coroner assumed that Turing had dipped the apple in cyanide before taking two bites out of it. A verdict of suicide was reached without question. Fifty-eight years ago today, 12 June, 2012, Alan Turing was cremated. He and his secret work were then lost to history for 30 years.