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A Misunderstood Genius


In Part Two of his investigation of the life and legacy of Alan Turing, Scott Caldwell focuses on Turing’s contributions to artificial intelligence and computer science, and at the reappraisal of his private life.

Having looked at Turing’s early life and career in last month’s column, (RadioUser, October 2019: 14-18), I would like to discuss in some more detail the contributions Alan Turing made to the development of radio, artificial intelligence and computers, recently celebrated in London’s Science Museum (Figs 1 and 2).

In 1949, Turing accepted the position of Deputy Director of the Computing Laboratory at the University of Manchester. His signature research on artificial intelligence led to the publication of “Company Machinery and Intelligence” in 1950. In this paper, he referred to the “Imitation Game” (now referred to as the ‘Turing Test’), as a method to determine whether a machine displaying some ‘behavioural’ tendencies could be truly described as ‘intelligent’. This is widely regarded as Turing’s most famous research paper, and the test contributed significantly to all future work in the field of artificial intelligence.

The ‘Turing-Debate’, as to whether or not computers could ‘think’ like a human being, has become one of the greatest philosophical debates of modern times. It focuses on the very essence of what it means to be human, and it has inspired scientists and science fiction writers alike.

Turing concluded that “I believe that, at the end of the century, one will be able to speak of machines ‘thinking’ without expecting to be contradicted”. He saw this as akin to a ‘free spirit’ – able to facilitate and process stimuli in an autonomous manner. Turing was a visionary on artificial intelligence, even before the concept had been devised by John McCarthy in 1956. It remains a fundamental way to chart the progress of computer science, and humans will still be discussing its merits for centuries to come.

Turing’s Private Life

In many respects, Turing was born at the wrong time in history. He was arrested for homosexual activity, in a society that was morally rigid, intolerant, and resistant to changing views and values. Turing was thus often viewed as a ‘problem’ to society, rather than as an academic asset.

Fig. 1: The entrance to the Top Secret Exhibition at the Science Museum, London. Fig. 2: The exhibit dedicated to Bletchley Park and Alan Turing at the Science Museum.

His security credentials were revoked almost instantaneously, and travel restrictions barred his entry into the United States, although, ironically, his passport was never revoked. In the last years of Turing’s life, his travels were restricted to a number of friendly European nations.

The United States succumbed to a kind of Cold War hysteria, which implied a view that homosexual men could be easily compromised by female Russian spies and –  more importantly – by liaisons with Soviet homosexuals. Turing’s research would remain classified as top secret until the 1970s, severely limiting any defence of his character and intellect. Indeed, Turing was bound by the Official Secrets Act; he could not openly discuss his research, which was, therefore, not publicly disclosed until the 1970s.

Initially, those closest to Turing believed that he was putting on a brave face, taking the social stigma in his stride. His strength of character is clearly evident in a letter he wrote to his friend, Norman Routledge. He wrote that, “I’ve now got myself into the kind of trouble that I have always considered to be quite a possibility for me, though I have usually rated it at about 10:1 against. I shall shortly be pleading guilty to a charge of sexual offences with a young man. The story of how it has all come to be found out is a long and fascinating one, which I shall have to make into a short story one day, but I haven’t the time to tell you now”.

Arrest and Trial

Turing was accused and charged with committing ‘gross indecency’, based on his homosexual liaisons with Arnold Murray, aged just 19 years old. This was readily revealed after Turing was subjected to a battery of questions that were initially in relation to a burglary that had previously taken place at Turing’s home address. Turing’s relationship with Murray was subjected to intense pressure and seemed doomed to end in heartbreak.

Murray has been described as a ‘drifter’, whom Turing had picked up, almost at random, from outside a movie theatre during the festive holiday period. Remarkably, they were from totally different backgrounds and Follow us on Facebook @radioenthusiasts and Twitter @REnthusiasts  were essentially opposites, in turns of social class and standing. Murray seemed quite pleased with his new relationship with Turing and readily told all of his friends and associates, some of which were of dubious reputation and character.

It soon became apparent to Turing that a significant amount of money was going missing from his wallet, and the only suspect was his new partner, Murray, who had accumulated a considerable amount of debt. The real instigator of the burglary at Turing’s home was a friend of Murray’s, known by the name of ‘Harry’.

Reluctantly, Murray admitted to Turing that he had an idea as to who was behind the burglary, and this led to an inner determination by Turing to pursue the matter; he subsequently called the police. They initially treated the matter as a routine burglary and conducted a limited investigation that included dusting for fingerprints. Not entirely happy with this situation, Turing consulted a lawyer who advised him to break off all contact with Murray at once, for the stake of his personal and professional reputation.

The subsequent police investigation discovered acts of ‘gross indecency’, contrary
to the Sexual Offences Act 1885. Turing was forced to accept his ‘guilt’, rather than have his private life exposed to the world.

His sentence was a probation order that called for a series of Oestrogen injections, a process that would ultimately suppress his sexual urges. Many details of the case Regina vs Turing & Murray at Chester Assizes, on Monday 31st March 1952 are available at this website and elsewhere:

New Friends and Poisoned Apples

Turing did meet an improbable new friend, Alan Garner, despite the significant age gap; the latter was only 17 years old and a student enrolled at Manchester Grammar School. They shared many interests and passions. They had initially met on the running track and struck up a conversation that led to an unlikely friendship that developed into a running partnership (Turing had been an avid runner for most of his life).

Quite a remarkable mutual fascination developed, given their age and professional standing. However, both enjoyed discussing the latest scientific discoveries, and they possessed a very quirky sense of humour. Their most unique bond was a long standing fascination with the Disney movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Garner recalled that the ‘poisoned-apple-scene’ had greatly frightened him as a young child; he had, after all, just been five years old when the film was released.

Turing took a rather philosophical stance and inferred that the apple in question was not meant to be frightening but resembled a larger metaphor that depicted the circle of life on earth. Turing would launch into a long-winded lecture on the “ambiguity of the apple, red on one side, and green on the other side”. The red side resembled life, and the green indicated imminent death.

It seems that the film had a deep impact in Turing’s subconscious mind, facilitating his own unique philosophy on the circle of life. It is quite ironic that the poison apple would later come to signify the end of Turing’s life and the unnecessary character assassination he had to injure.

Fig. 3: Part of a German Enigma machine. Fig.4: Part of a Bombe machine. Figs. 5a &b: Encryption Machines at the Science Museum.



Garner was later contacted by the local police who emphatically warned him to cease all future contact with Turing. Clearly, the establishment was taking a close interest in Turing’s day-to-day activities, based on the continuous fear of a significant national security disclosure.

An Essential Reappraisal

The campaign for a Royal Pardon had been growing in momentum since a petition was posted on the Number 10 Website. It had attracted overwhelming support. Finally, on the 10th September 2009, the then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown felt compelled to issue the following statement of apology: “Turing was quite a brilliant mathematician most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes (Figs. 3, 4, 5b). It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He was truly was one of those individuals we can point to, whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.

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“In 1952, he was convicted of gross indecency in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration, by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later. So, on behalf of the British Government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: We’re sorry, you deserved so much better”.

Family Involvement and Public Image

To preserve Alan Turing’s legacy – and considering the controversy that surrounded his public image – a number of books that chronicled his achievements were published by family members. Most noticeable examples are the books my Turing’s mother and brother. She explained that she wanted to “set the record straight”. She would always maintain that his death was accidental and not an act of suicide, suggesting that he accidentally contaminated an apple before he consumed it.

The remains of the apple were not forensically examined, and it was quickly discarded and forgotten by the investigating authorities. Some have speculated that Turing may have accidentally inhaled Cyanide fumes, further adding to the mystery of his demise. After a hard day researching, it was a regular routine of his to eat an apple before drifting off to sleep, leaving the left-overs behind on his nightstand. His was a creature of habit and strict routines. This has facilitated a debate amongst contemporary mental health experts, as to whether or not Turing may have fulfilled the criteria for a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.

Final Projects and an Exhibition

One of Turing’s last research projects concerned the electroplating of gold onto concerned the electroplating of gold onto spoons. This technique required the use of potassium cyanide in order to make the gold malleable enough. This fact has been frequently emphasised by proponents of the ‘accidental-death-theory’.

However, it may be a historical mystery that will most likely never be resolved one way or another.

The full extent of Turing’s research did not fully come to life until after his tragic and untimely death. His research still impacts on the embryonic discipline of computer science and ‘big data’ analytics.

This is emphasised by the annual Turing Award – the highest accolade in the sector. In 2015, a new National Centre for Research in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence was established in honour of Turing.

Turing’s research at Bletchley Park is acknowledged in playing a major role in shortening the Second World War’s duration, ensuring ultimate Allied victory, and saving countless lives in the process.

At the time of the publication of this column, Top Secret – From Ciphers to Cyber Security, a ground-breaking exhibition at London’s Science Museum focuses on this period of Alan Turing’s life, and the photographs in this article were taken there by the editor in October 2019 (Figs. 1 to 5b).

The exhibit coincided with the Centenary of GCHQ.

In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II belatedly granted Turing a Royal Posthumous Pardon, under the prerogative of mercy. A highprofile campaign had attracted significant public support, and it was enhanced by favourable media coverage. The campaign had the full support of such luminaries as Professor Stephen Hawking.

The New £50 Note

Advisory Committee agreed to celebrate Scientific Invention on the proposed new £50 note. The bank received an unprecedented number of 227,299 nominations, based on an extensive list that covered 989 eligible and historically significant scientists.

The committee duly considered all the nominations before creating a shortlist of 12 possible candidates who would ultimately be selected by the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney.

The shortlist consisted of Mary Anning, Paul Dirac, Rosalind Franklin, William Herschel and Caroline Herschel, Dorothy Hodgkin, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, Stephen Hawking, James Clerk Maxwell, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Sanger, and Alan Turing.

On the occasion, Carney commented that “Alan Turing was an outstanding mathematician whose work has had an enormous impact on how we live today. As the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, as well as a war hero, Alan Turing’s contributions were far-ranging and path-breaking. Turing is a giant on whose shoulders so many now stand”.

The £50 banknote is full of interesting facts and figures encompassing Turing’s remarkable scientific career: A quarter-plate glass negative taken of Turing on 29th March 1951 by Elliott & Fry was purchased in 1996 and is now part of the Photographs Collection at the National Portrait Gallery. The new note also refers to one of.

Turing’s seminal papers from 1937, to the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) developed at the National Physical Laboratory, the technical drawings for the British Bombe (the machine specified by Turing and one of the primary tools used to break Enigma-enciphered messages transmitted by the German Kriegsmarine; Figs. 3, 4, 5b).

Moreover, there is Turing’s signature from the visitor’s book at Bletchley Park in 1947, where he worked as a codebreaker during WWII, and a quote from an interview to The Times newspaper on 11th June 1949: “This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.”

Last but not least, the banknote shows ticker-tape depicting Alan Turing’s birth date (23rd June 1912) in binary code. The concept of a machine fed by binary tape featured in Turing’s pioneering 1937 paper.


Shortly after the completion of Turing’s post-mortem examination, his remains were taken to the Woking Crematorium. On 12th June 1954, his remains were cremated; at last, Turing had found eternal peace.

In many respects, the strange drama of Turing’s death has given him a lasting place in the public consciousness, reflected, perhaps, by his image on the new £50 note.

Turing’s life was cut tragically short, and all we are left with the question of just what might have been, in terms of his next scientific breakthrough research project.

This Article was featured in the November 2019 issue of Practical Wireless

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