This post is like SUPER long, but this man did a LOT of stuff that is really important even to this day and he deserves to have it all celebrated. Let’s get into it:
Alan Turing was born on June 23, 1912 in London. (He was one of a handful LGBT+ figures who were born on this day — the birthday is shared by Alfred Kinsey, and myself. 😛) Turing is often known as the father of theoretical computer science as well as artificial intelligence, and is known for his work in code-breaking. In truth, he accomplished a great deal more than that before his death on June 7, 1954. (And that’s why we’re doing his post today!)
Alan Turing displayed signs of genius early on in life, showing incredible gifts at science and math, which were recognized by his teachers. At the age of 13, he was sent to Sherborne boarding school — however, his aptitude for math and science was not appreciated by many of the staff there, who sought to create more well-rounded students. Nevertheless, Turing would find inspiration for much of his later work at the school — by working on advancing his own education alongside his “first love” (albeit unrequited) Christopher Morcom. On February 13 of 1930, Morcom died from complications related to bovine tuberculosis, which he had contracted several years earlier. To work through his grief, Alan dedicated himself even more fully to his studies of math.
Turing attended university at King’s College in Cambridge. (That’s Cambridge in England, not in Massachusetts, for the Bostonians reading this.) At this point, Turing began writing and publishing dissertations on things that I am truly not smart enough to explain, so I’m just going to tell you what they were and let you Google them. In 1935, Turing wrote a dissertation that proved the central limit theorem. He was elected a fellow of King’s College as a result, because neither Turing nor the committee realized that the theorem had already been proven in 1922. I guess that’s what happens when you go to university before the invention of the Internet. In 1936, Turing published a paper called “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” (I’ll admit to copying and pasting that last word there because wtf Germany, is that word for real?) In this paper, Turing essentially planned out the devices that would be called Turing machines, and proved that the-then hypothetical machine would be able to solve any computation that could be solved by an algorithm — and also apparently proved that you couldn’t mathematically prove whether or not his hypothetical machine would ever stop, or something. I mentioned that this is way over my head, right?
Apparently, someone else also beat Turing to the punch with the things he was proving about the Entscheidungsproblem (seriously, Germany, wtf?) — but Turing’s answers were considered far more accessible than those provided by Alonzo Church. As a result, Turing machines became central to the science of computers and are apparently still studied as part of the theory of computation. Likely because of their common interest in developing machines that could computer literally anything, Turing began to study under Alonzo Church at Princeton University from 1936 to 1938. It was here that Turing began to study cryptology, or code breaking. After earning his PhD, Turing returned to Cambridge to give lectures, and he also joined the British code-breaking organization called the Government Code & Cipher School (GC&CS).
The day after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Turing reported for duty at Bletchley Park — which was the wartime headquarters for the GC&CS. He is credited with essentially five different code-breaking techniques, including the bombe which was the primary automated method used by the GC&CS during World War II. For a time, he led Hut 8 — the British group in charge of breaking German naval ciphers. Never one to stop being a scholar, Turing also published two papers on mathematical approaches to codebreaking — however, these papers contained such valuable information to the British codebreaking organization that they were not actually released until 2012.
Turing’s work is estimated to have saved thousands of lives during World War II, and is said to have shorted the war by as much as two years. In 1946, King George IV awarded Turing the Order of the British Empire even though Turing’s work remained secret for years to come.
In 1945, Turing began working on an Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). He also wrote and presented a paper on a hypothetical computer that could store programming — unheard of at the time. (Once again, Turing was beaten to the punch on the *idea* but the paper that preceded him was apparently too vague to be taken seriously.) On May 10, 1950 a pilot version of the ACE enacted its first program — although Turing was at Cambridge at the time and did not witness the event. Turing’s ACE would not be truly completed until after his death.
Turing also became interested in other, more obscure forms of mathematics at about this time. He developed what is known as the Turing test — a test to determine whether or not a machine had true intelligence. This test is still used today, and in fact every one of those CAPTCHA tests that drive us all nuts is a reverse Turing test. He also worked on creating a chess program for computers — even though computers capable of running the program did not exist. The algorithm was completed in 1953, but could only be demonstrated by Turing flipping through his work to play the game of chess out on and actual chessboard. He also became keenly interested in mathematical biology (which I frankly did not even know was a thing until I started researching him) and particularly in morphogenesis (I don’t know what that is either). Despite publishing his work on morphogenesis before DNA was discovered, his paper is still considered relevant by biologists to this day.
In December of 1951, Turing began a relationship with an unemployed nineteen year old named Arnold Murray. Shortly afterwards, a burglar broke into Turing’s house — Murray said he knew the man, and Turing reported the crime to the police. However, during the course of the investigation, the sexual relationship between the two men was discovered. Homosexual acts were still illegal in the United Kingdoms at the time, considered “gross indecency” under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. Both men were charged with the crime.
Turing pled guilty to the crime. The case Regina v. Turing and Murray went to trial on March 31, 1952. Turing was convicted, stripped of his security clearance, barred from doing anymore cryptographic consulting, and given a choice: imprisonment, or probation with a hormonal treatment to lower his libido for one year. He opted for probation. The hormonal treatment, however, rendered him impotent and caused gynaecomastia (the growth of breast tissue in men). As a result of the conviction, Turing was also denied entry in the United States of America.
On June 7, 1954 Alan Turing died of cyanide poisoning. His body was discovered by his housekeeper the next day. Because there was a half-eaten apple by his bed, it was assumed that he committed suicide by ingesting the cyanide with the apple. There are theories, however, that his death was actually an accident as he was keeping some lab equipment in his bedroom, which used cyanide to dissolve gold. Yet others believe he intentionally put the equipment in his room to make his suicide look more like an accident. Some are still calling for a renewed investigation into his death.
In 2014, Turing was officially posthumously pardoned for the crime of gross indecency by the Queen. His was only the fourth royal pardon since the end of World War II. As of 2016, in what is informally called the “Alan Turing Law”, others convicted of historical laws that outlawed homosexual acts are being pardoned in England and Wales.
On June 5, 2019 Alan Turing received an obituary from the New York Times as part of their “Overlooked” series.
(Adapted from this Facebook post.)