Chris Roberts

Remembering Alan Turing

• Posted in Life

Even the deepest, most ingrained attitudes of entire nations can change by a surprising amount over time. Few things demonstrate this better than the story of Alan Turing.

The genius of Alan Turing is very well documented, but for those who aren't familiar with his work he was the man responsible for decrypting German communications during the Second World War. His contribution was such that many people believe his efforts were as important as Churchill's.

He also devised many of the concepts upon which modern computers are based. He was the first person to have the idea of a 'universal machine' which could effectively be programmed to perform different tasks. Yes - he invented software!

Given the extent of his achievements and the level of service offered to his country, the way he was later treated by the nation he served so well was utterly abhorrent. In 1952 he was convicted of gross indecency for being a homosexual. He was offered the choice of a prison sentence or chemical castration.

He chose chemical castration and was forced to have regular injections of oestrogen. His security clearance was revoked and he was no longer able to work at Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ).

He committed suicide two years later in 1954 at the age of 41.

Given the world we live in today, I find it impossible to comprehend this treatment. I can only imagine the idea of homosexuality was as appalling then as I consider Turing's treatment to have been now.

Nearly 60 years on, attitudes towards homosexuals have changed drastically. The prime minister released a statement this week officially acknowledging the appalling treatment of Alan Turing. If this achieves nothing else, I hope it serves to remind people of this story so that the same mistakes can be avoided in the future.

If you want to find out more about Alan Turing's work on computability, I can't recommend The Annotated Turing by Charles Petzold highly enough. He breaks down Turing's famous paper on Computability and explains every section in fascinating detail.