An Intricate Mind: Alan Turing 1912-1954



Alan Turing Memorial, Sackville Gardens, Manchester: sculptor Glyn Hughes


Here is the statue of man whose decoding of German Enigma Code is credited with shortening World War 2 by two years, and so saving thousands of lives. After the war, working in Manchester, he played a key role in developing ‘Baby’, the first digital computer. He had the brilliance of intellect and foresight that should have been considered a national treasure. Yet in 1952 he was charged with engaging in homosexual acts, tried and convicted of gross indecency. The penalty was prison or chemical castration through the administration of oestrogen. He chose the latter. But because homosexuals were considered security risks, he forfeited his security clearance. In 1954 he was found dead. At the inquest the coroner concluded he had committed suicide by taking potassium cyanide. He was forty two.

There have various theories about his death: that he staged it to look like an accident; that it was in fact an accident; that he was assassinated. In any event we can only guess at the scale of his future contributions to the domains of science, mathematics, and computer technology had he lived. In 1950, concluding his article in the journal Mind, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, he himself said:

We can see only a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.


In 2013 Turing was granted a royal pardon, and British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, expressed his regret at the way the eminent mathematician had been treated. Today, Turing’s great-niece, Rachel Barnes is lending her support to the campaign Turing’s Law that wishes to see 49,000 others given posthumous pardons. She says that while the Turing family was delighted by Alan Turning’s pardon, they felt it unfair that it was not extended to others similarly convicted.

Turing relative demands pardons for gay men convicted under outdated laws

And all I can say is: see where bigotry takes us. And if you want to see what kind of funny, humane man Alan Turing was, and discover something of his intricate thinking, then read the article Computing Machinery and Intelligence at the link above. It begins with the words:

I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?”