Alan Turing. Codebreaker? Yeah, but....


Cryptanalyst, Computer Scientist, Logician, Mathematician, Homosexual

Mention the name, Alan Turing, and people think, “Oh, he's the guy who broke the 'German Code'.
Well, that is, if they think of him at all. Most people have never heard the name, much less

know that he is responsible for things they use every day. Things that, some would say, they couldn't get through one day without. Several items, in fact. One is their Smart phone. The other, their computer.
While the world's oldest analog computer was the ancient Greek-designed Antikythera mechanism, dating between 150 to 100 BC, the principle of the modern computer was first described by Alan Turing. He set out the idea in his seminal 1936 paper, ”On Computable Numbers”.


A portion of Turing's 1936 paper

 Even though the modern computer is the result of many people, sharing their ideas and inspiring one another, Turing came up with the electro-mechanical binary multiplier in 1937, which is the basics of all computers and Smart phones today. 

In 1939-40 Turing and others working with him, began working on breaking the Enigma Machine.  An encoding device that was undergoing trials with the German Army. Poland had already broken the Enigma code but when they did, the cipher altered only once every few months.


The Enigma Machine

With the advent of war, Germany changed it at least once a day, giving 159 million million million possible settings to choose from.

Turing invented an electromechanical machine that could help break Enigma more effectively than the Polish bomba kryptoloficzna, from which its name was derived. The “bombe”, with an enhancement suggested by mathematician Gordan Welchman became one of the primary tools, and the major automated one, used to attack Enigma-enciphered messages. It reduced the time for certain calculations from 6 months for a human to only 25 minutes for the bombe. 


The Bombe

In 1942, with the assistance of the bombe, they had broken the code.

It has been estimated that breaking the Enigma code shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years.

In 1952, Turing, then 39, began a relationship with Arnold Murray a 19 year old unemployed man.
On 23 January, Turing's house was burgled. Murray told Turing that the burglar was an acquaintance of his. Turing reported the crime to the police because whoever the person was, they had stolen a pocket watch given to Turing by his dad.

Once the police heard about the relationship the two had, they basically forgot about the burglary altogether and arrested both of the men, charging them with gross indecency. Convinced by his brother, he pled guilty.

He was convicted and had a choice of prison or probation. Probation was conditional on him being chemically castrated by undergoing injections of oestrogen followed by taking daily doses of Stilboestrol. These rendering him impotent, shrunk his testicles and most likely causing gynaecomastia.  


Bottle of Stilboestrol

He had spent years helping England win the war, which they may not have won, had he not been involved with breaking 'the code' and now they had taken his manhood.

 Turing's 'punishment' only lasted a year.  Once the treatment was stopped the effects were reversible but they weren't immediate. It took 8 months or more for the body to undo the damage done by the hormones and impotence, as well as other side effects remained.

He traveled to Norway but found out that even there, he was being watched by the authorities to make sure he wasn't giving away national secrets to any of his gay friends and it really made it really hard for him to have any. He went back to England feeling immensely oppressed, and still undergoing the chemical castration. Removing the testosterone had taken it's toll and in 1953 when the treatment ended, he had began to have mental issues.


Blackpool, England 1954

In 1954 while on a trip to Blackpool, England, he went to a fortune teller. He was never the same after that and never divulged what she told him, but soon after he started talking about Sleeping Beauty and the poison apple.
On June 8, 1954 his body was found by his housekeeper, he had died the previous day of cyanide poisoning, he was 41 years old.

Mathematical genius, English war hero, logician, computer scientist, homosexual.

Alan Turing was all of those things but the thing that brought his life to an end, wasn't because he was homosexual, it was shortened because of society's oppression of homosexuals.  

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  • The irony and injustice in this story is not unique. It has happened and will continue to happen around the world, especially in the dozens of countries where homosexuality is still a serious crime. Many have contributed greatly from within their closets, only to be exposed and punished unspeakably. Even in countries such as the U.S…where there is often still chronic low to moderate oppression, individuals are dehumanized and often do not reach their potential, to say the least. In addition to external oppression, we have been taught quite successfully to self oppress, over decades. Perhaps some day our gifts and talents and ambitions will outweigh the importance of our sexuality and identity in the eyes of society. Perhaps our sexuality and gender identity will not even be worthy enough to be a curiosity, to be questioned, or to even come up in conversation. Those items will certainly describe us, yet not define us.