I imagine there are very few people reading this blog who don’t know that the Allies won the second world war. I also imagine that many, if not most, of you have heard of Enigma machines, and that a significant number of you know that the British managed to crack the Enigma codes as well as other German and Axis codes. This was a massive advantage for the Allies, and in no small way, helped to turn the tide of war against the Axis powers.
However, I imagine that there are not too many of you who have heard of Alan Turing. Academically he laid the very foundations upon which computer science, and hence our entire digital world, are built. His 1936 paper entitled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” doesn’t sound very relevant to Twitter or FaceBook, but it’s one of the foundation stones on which all these things rest. You’ll note that Turing’s work on the theory of computation pre-dates the existence of any actual computers!
Clearly, Alan Turing is one of the great men of the 20th Century, yet he is far from a household name. There’s probably two reasons for that, first, the British kept the computers they built during the second world war a secret, even after the war. They did this in the interest of security, because they saw the power of computers as tools for winning wars. For decades no one knew that the British had built the worlds first programable electronic computer (Colossus). The Americans took the credit with the likes of Eniac, but the Britsh didn’t raise their voices to correct the record, they kept their secret. The British computing effort was centralised in Bletchley Park (now a museum), and Alan Turing was in the thick of it all. However, because of the secrecy surrounding the whole Bletchley Park project, the many great minds there never got the credit they deserved. By no means was Turing the only great mind at work in Bletchley, but he could be argued to be the greatest of them. Another man who I think deserves to be singled out for praise is Tommy Flowers.
Those decades of secrecy definitely didn’t help Turing to gain the reputation, respect, and honour he deserved, but in his case there was another factor – he was gay. This lead to him being prosecuted and chemically sterilised. Ultimately this inhumane and abusive treatment led to his suicide. He helped save the world from the evils of fascism, yet, ironically, his treatment by the “free world” he helped save was not at all un-like the treatment he would have suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Along with Oscar Wild, Alan Turing is one of the most prominent victims of homophobia in Britain.
Clearly this man was owed an apology. For a number of weeks now a campaign has been a foot to get an official government apology from the British Government to Alan Turing. Now that it’s 70 years since the Allied counter-offensive that ended the second world war, an offensive that was massively helped by the work at Bletchey, the time seemed right. The campaign was run by both computer scientists and gay rights campaigners, and was a complete success. This week, Gordon Brown, the prime-minister of the Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland, penned an official apology to Turing. Politically I doubt I have very much in common with Gordon Brown, were I a UK voter I would certainly not vote for him or his party, but it cannot be denied that the letter is wonderful. It’s thoughtful, moving, well written, and unequivocal in its apology. It’s well worth a read.
Turing has been a personal hero of mine for a long time. How many gay computer scientist war heroes are there!? A few years ago I got to visit Bletchley Park, and to walk around the same grounds Turing did. What was better, our tour guide had actually worked at the base while Turing was there, and was able to talk first-hand about what he was like. Apparently he was a rather eccentric fellow. I remember one anecdote in particular, apparently he used to cycle everywhere, but he also suffered badly from hay fever. His solution was simple, cycle with a gas mask on! Apparently this did save him from hay fever, but it frightened the heck out of the local kids!
If you’re ever in the UK, I can highly recommend a visit to Bletchley, there’s a lot to see there, and it’s easily accessible by rail from the London. For the nerds among you, Colossus (the world’s first programable electronic computer) has been re-created there, and is in full working order. There’s also a fantastic computer museum where they keep all the old computers we grew up with up and running, and visitors get to sit down in front of them and re-live their youth! There’s also a fantastic WW2 museum, and you get to play with a real Enigma machine! I also really loved the Churchill memorabilia museum. It’s a massive room full of only Churchill memorabilia, ranging from the bizarre to the sublime! I could go on and on. I spent a whole day there, and I could easily have spent longer!