They certainly took their time about it. On September 10, 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally issued a formal apology on behalf of his government to scientist Alan Turing, who had been convicted of “gross indecency” and publicly shunned more than fifty years before. Turing is today regarded as one of the premiere scientists of the twentieth century and is credited not only with the invention of the computer but also with providing a decisive contribution to the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War. He was also gay, and that proved to be his undoing. It certainly undid all of his other accomplishments in the minds of his contemporaries.
Turing was born in London in 1912 to a civil service family. A gifted scientist and mathematician, he attended public schools and later Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he laid out the principles of modern computer science.
In 1938 Turing started working with the British government in a top secret cryptanalysis program. A year later, at the government’s special research center at Bletchley Park, Turing designed the “bombe,” an electromechanical cryptanalytic machine that succeeded in breaking the Nazis’ “Enigma” code for submarine operations. Turing went on to develop numerous other formulas and devices for the British and American governments and was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his crucial contributions to the Allied war effort. In fact, Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park may have shortened the war by two years, well before Hitler’s new V-1 and V-2 rockets and his jet fighters could have a major impact.
After the war, Turing – whose wartime work was still classified – worked at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory, Cambridge University, and the University of Manchester on radical new computing machines and software. Among other developments in the new field of artificial intelligence, Turing programmed the world’s first chess-playing computer in 1948. He later devoted himself to physics and the field of mathematical biology.
Turing was not only a scientist but also a world class long-distance runner, once completing a marathon in a stunning 2 hours, 46 minutes, 3 seconds. When asked why he devoted so much time to running, he replied “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard.”
One of the great ironies about the Allied war effort was that it was partly won by people the Nazis regarded as enemies of the state: Jews, left-wingers, gay people, and eccentrics of all kinds played key roles in bringing them down. Hitler would have been happy to put these people into camps, and maybe do worse. But were the Allies really so much better?
Turing found out in 1952 when he encountered a young man on a Manchester street and invited him home for the weekend. Up to that point, Turing had always been utterly discreet about his homosexuality and virtually no one among his circle of friends even knew he was gay. But when the young man used this visit to Turing's home to open the door to a burglar, Turing turned to the police. This proved to be a mistake, for after Turing told the constables the nature of the relationship he was charged with “gross indecency” under the British criminal code and – just like Oscar Wilde a half-century earlier – later convicted and punished.
Part of his sentence involved estrogen treatments to reduce his sex drive and “chemically castrate” him. One side effect of this “cure” was breast growth, which thoroughly humiliated him. Turing was never accused of espionage, and yet his security clearance was removed and he was denied entry to the United States. Turing poisoned himself with cyanide on June 8, 1954.
After a petition drive to rehabilitate Turing, which collected over 30,000 signatures, Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated:
“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.”
And so does everybody else who is persecuted because of who they are. Alan Turing, rest in peace. You've earned it.