*originally posted October 15 2009
Alan Mathison Turing was a genius, and a hero, and changed the way the world works. the very idea that I can put these words here and they can be read all over the world instantly is, in part, a testament to Allan Turing.
Born in Great Britain, he was a mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist, and was influential in the development of computer science and provided an influential formalisation of the concept of the algorithm and computation with the Turing machine. I know, it's all blibbety-blah-blay-blue to me, too; but somebody had to do it, and Alan Turing was the man.
In 1999, Time Magazine named Turing as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century for his role in the creation of the modern computer, and stated: "The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine."
During World War II, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School, Britain's code-breaking center, and for a while he headed up the section responsible for German Naval cryptanalysis where he devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers.
After the war, he worked at the National Physical Laboratory and created one of the first designs for a stored-program computer. In 1945, Turing was awarded the Order of the British empire [OBE] for his wartime services, even though for years what he did, his work, remained a secret.
The biggest secret of all, however, was that Alan Turing was also a gay man. And even though, after his death, he has been honored in the United Kingdom and all over the world, for what he did during the war and afterwards, the harshest reality is that he was punished, cruelly punished, for being gay.
In January 1952 Turing picked up a 19-year-old man, Arnold Murray, outside a movie theater in Manchester. After a lunch date, Turing invited Murray to spend the weekend with him at his house, an invitation Murray accepted although he did not show up. The pair met again in Manchester the following Monday, when Murray agreed once again to accompany Turing to his home.
A few weeks later Murray visited Turing again, and apparently spent the night. Several days later, Murray and an accomplice broke into Turing's home, and when Turing reported the crime to the police, he admitted to a sexual relationship with Murray.
Since homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time, both men were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, the same crime that Oscar Wilde had been convicted of more than fifty years earlier.
Turing was given a choice between imprisonment or probation conditional on his agreement to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. He accepted chemical castration via estrogen hormone injections, one of the side effects of which was that he grew breasts.
But that wasn't his only punishment. The conviction led to the removal of Turing's security clearance, and barred him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy. At the time, there was acute government anxiety about spies and homosexual entrapment by Soviet agents, due to the recent exposure of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean as KGB double agents. Turing was never accused of espionage but was not allowed to continue his work.
On June 8, 1954, Turing's housekeeper found him dead. An autopsy revealed the cause of death to be cyanide poisoning. When his body was discovered, a half-eaten apple lay beside his bed and although the apple was not tested for cyanide, it is speculated that this was the means by which a fatal dose was delivered. It was determined that Alan Turing had committed suicide, however, his mother strenuously argued that the ingestion was accidental, due to his careless storage of laboratory chemicals.
Turing biographer Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing may have killed himself in an ambiguous way quite deliberately, to give his mother some plausible deniability, while others suggest that Turing was re-enacting a scene from Snow White, his favorite fairy tale. Still others speculate that he may have been murdered by the British Secret Service. Whatever the reason, however he died, it is quite clear that his death occurred because of his criminal conviction for being gay.
In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started an internet petition urging the British Government to posthumously apologize to Alan Turing for prosecuting him as a homosexual. The petition received thousands of signatures, forcing Prime Minister Gordon Brown to publicly acknowledge the petition, to release a statement describing Turing's treatment as "appalling," and to apologize for Alan Turing's treatment:
"Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him....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."
It seems somehow fitting that I can use this computer, and this particular space on the web to remind us of Alan Turing. I think he'd be quite pleased to know that a gay man is using a computer to acknowledge him, and to thank him.
One interesting sidenote: Urban legend has it that the logo of Apple computers is a tribute to Alan Turing, with the bite mark a reference to his method of suicide. The company denies this.
|On This Day In LGBT History|
October 15, 1952 – One, Inc. was founded in Los Angeles to publish One Magazine. The magazine was published until 1969. One, Inc. still continues as an educational institution.
October 15, 1969 – New York City’s Gay Liberation Front joined a moratorium protest against the war in Vietnam.
October 15, 1973 – The formation of the National Gay Task Force was announced in New York City.
October 15-16, 1977 – The First National Congress of Quebec Gays meets.
October 15, 1977 – The Santa Barbara, California, board of education voted to ban discrimination against GLB students, making it the first US school board to do so.
October 15, 1983 – Eddie Murphy’s HBO special “Delirious” aired. It raised controversy because of several tasteless AIDS jokes and a long diatribe about “faggots.”
October 15, 1987 – Ken Dawson, who had been director of Senior Action in a Gay Environment for six years, resigned. When he began the organization had an annual budget of $45,000 and 100 volunteers, when he resigned the annual budget was $750,000 and 600 volunteers.
October 15, 1988 – A gay rights ordinance was passed in Alexandria, Virginia.
October 15, 1993 – Federal district court judge Kimba Wood ruled that shareholders of Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores Inc should be allowed to vote on retaining a company policy that would forbid employment of gays and lesbians.
October 15, 1999 – The US State Department issued a statement to the government of Uganda expressing “deep concern and consternation” over anti-gay statements made by President Yoweri Museveni.
October 15, 1999 – Washington Times columnist Cal Thomas reported that George W. Bush told a small group of conservative Republicans he would not knowingly appoint a practicing homosexual as an ambassador or department head if elected president.