Overlooked No More: Alan Turing, Condemned Code Breaker and Computer Visionary


In 1942, Turing was assigned to visit the United States for several months of high-level consultations on the encryption of conversations between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston S. Churchill. His wartime work earned him a high civilian award, and he was named an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

In the postwar years, Turing’s fascination with computers led him to design the Automatic Computing Engine. Although it was never built, Turing believed that “the computer would offer unlimited scope for practical progress toward embodying intelligence in an artificial form,” Hodges wrote.

In October 1948, Turing began working at Manchester University’s computing laboratory. He bought a house in nearby Wilmslow in 1950. Among his enthusiasms were his work on various scientific themes, including morphogenesis, the theory of growth and form in biology; his continued secret ties to Britain’s postwar code breakers; and long-distance running.

He was also, Hodges said, beginning to explore the homosexual identity he had hidden when he proposed marriage in 1941 to Joan Clarke, a Bletchley Park cryptanalyst. He later withdrew the offer after explaining his sexuality to her, and the two remained friends.

About 10 years later, the police were investigating a burglary at his home when he admitted to having had a physical relationship with a man named Arnold Murray. Murray told Turing that he knew the thief’s identity, and detectives, in their questioning, asked Turing about his relationship to Murray.

In March 1952, Turing and Murray were charged with “gross indecency,” and both pleaded guilty in court. Murray was given a conditional discharge, but Turing was ordered to undergo chemical castration by taking doses of the female hormone estrogen to reduce sex drive.

Two years later, the motive for his apparent suicide, at age 41, remained unclear and left many questions. At the time, Hodges wrote, known homosexuals were denied security clearances, which meant that Turing could not be involved in secret work during the Cold War, leaving him excluded and embittered. While a coroner deemed the death a suicide, the telltale apple at Turing’s side was never forensically examined.



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