Alan Turing, Computer Pioneer, Honored At Last

Britain has officially apologized for mistreating the mathematician who helped crack encrypted Nazi codes.

William Gardner

September 12, 2009

2 Min Read
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It's taken a long time, but British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Friday issued a posthumous apology for the government's "inhumane" treatment of gay mathematician Alan Turing, the computing pioneer who famously broke Nazi codes and also laid the groundwork for much of modern computing.

Already honored by the annual $250,000 Turing Prize given to computing scholars, the mathematician is also remembered for the "Turing Test," which seeks to measure whether a computer can think. His abstract work in developing the Turing Test is considered a stepping stone in artificial intelligence.

Turing was a key player in the Bletchley Park team that broke the Nazi Enigma machine codes. When Nazi subs surfaced towards the end of the war, they were greeted with depth charges and bombers, because the code breaking enabled the Allies to pinpoint the movement of the subs.

The cryptographic strength of the Enigma machines is legendary. Two of three messages enciphered by German forces more than 60 years were deciphered only in 2006. A distributed computing project led by an amateur German cryptologist finally cracked the codes.

Turing's work was kept secret for many years. After the war, he worked on the design of the UK's ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) and presented a scientific paper considered to be the first detailed design of a stored-program computer.

An eccentric man, Turing often rode a bike to work wearing a gas mask. When he was called from his countryside home to high-level meetings in London, he often ran the 40 miles. Turing was a world-class marathon runner.

The British government forced him to undergo infusions of female hormones designed to treat his homosexuality, but the treatments caused him great pain. In 1954 he took his life by eating an apple laced with cyanide. Turing had loved children's stories all his life and some colleagues thought his love of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which Snow White ate a poisoned apple, played a role in his death .

"It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War II could well have been very different," Brown said as Britain noted the 70th anniversary of the start of the war. "He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of the war." The apology followed the submission of a petition to the Prime Minister, asking for an apology. It garnered 31,000 signatures.

Noting that homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967, Brown said Turing was "in effect, tried for being gay The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely," Brown added. "We're sorry, you deserved so much better."

InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis on strategic security. Download the report here (registration required).

InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis on strategic security. Download the report here (registration required).

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