An apology for Alan Turing

2009-09-03

in Bombs and rockets, Geek stuff, Law, Politics, Security

Vegetables in the ByWard Market, Ottawa

In addition to being one of the most notable mathematicians and computer scientists in British history, Alan Turing played a key role in cracking German codes during the Second World War. Despite the importance of his contribution, and the role intelligence from the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) played in helping the allies in the Battle of the Atlantic, Turing was subsequently persecuted by the British authorities for being homosexual.

Turing was stripped of security clearance, criminally prosecuted for consensual sex with another man, chemically castrated with estrogen injections, and eventually driven to depression and suicide.

Recently, a petition was launched insisting that the “British Government should apologize to Alan Turing for his treatment and recognize that his work created much of the world we live in and saved us from Nazi Germany. And an apology would recognize the tragic consequences of prejudice that ended this man’s life and career.” An apology for both his specific treatment and the general persecution of homosexuals seems entirely in order. Hopefully, the government will bow to the petitioner’s request, despite Turing not having any surviving family to apologize to.

While writing a historical wrong is a valid reason for issuing an apology, the incident is also not without contemporary relevance. Just look at the continued policy within the US armed forces to dismiss gay linguists from the military. Once again, people making a significant contribution to national security are being discriminated against on the basis of characteristics that are none of their government’s business.

[Update: 10 September 2009] Admirably, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology to Alan Turing: “While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.” The full statement is on the Prime Ministerial website.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan September 3, 2009 at 11:16 am

Really, the British record of honouring their codebreakers is pretty appalling, given the degree to which the government let Bletchley Park fall apart. Given all the national pride bound up in enduring WWII, you would think the British government would show a bit more appreciation.

See also:

Blog index >> Cryptography

. September 3, 2009 at 11:19 am

Happy 96th, Alan Turing!
Posted by Cory Doctorow, June 24, 2008 3:17 AM

Today would have been the 96th birthday of cryptologist, mathematician and father of almost everything digital Alan Turing. That he was persecuted for his homosexuality to the point of suicide is a crime and a tragedy.

Remember today the man who, more than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, is the reason you are now sitting at a computer, reading this very sentence.

ALAN MATHISON TURING
23 June, 1912 – 7 June, 1954

. September 3, 2009 at 11:22 am

Petition seeks apology for Enigma code-breaker Turing
By Hilary Whiteman

LONDON, England (CNN) — An online petition demanding a formal apology from the British government for its treatment of World War II code-breaker Alan Turing is gaining momentum.
Bletchley Park, the site of secret British codebreaking activities during World War II

A portrait of Alan Turing is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery’s “Gay Icons” exhibition.

Turing was subjected to chemical castration in 1952 after being found guilty of the charge of gross indecency for having a homosexual relationship, an illegal act at the time. He committed suicide two years later.

More than 19,000 people have added their names to the petition on the UK Government Web site since it opened three weeks ago, urging the government to “recognize the tragic consequences of prejudice that ended this man’s life and career.”

The petition was created by computer scientist John Graham-Cumming, who said he grew “mad” at the country’s memory of a man he says should be considered one of its national heroes.

. September 3, 2009 at 11:26 am

Turing machine
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Turing machines are basic abstract symbol-manipulating devices which, despite their simplicity, can be adapted to simulate the logic of any computer algorithm. They were described in 1936 by Alan Turing. Turing machines are not intended as a practical computing technology, but a thought experiment about the limits of mechanical computation. Thus they were not actually constructed.

A Turing machine that is able to simulate any other Turing machine is called a Universal Turing machine (UTM, or simply a universal machine). A more mathematically-oriented definition with a similar “universal” nature was introduced by Alonzo Church, whose work on lambda calculus intertwined with Turing’s in a formal theory of computation known as the Church–Turing thesis. The thesis states that Turing machines indeed capture the informal notion of effective method in logic and mathematics, and provide a precise definition of an algorithm or ‘mechanical procedure’.

Studying their abstract properties yields many insights into computer science and complexity theory

A Bunch of Rocks

. September 10, 2009 at 11:41 pm

“2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He 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. 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.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

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.

Gordon Brown”

. September 11, 2009 at 9:43 am

PM apology after Turing petition

Gordon Brown has said he is sorry for the “appalling” way World War II code-breaker Alan Turing was treated for being gay.

A petition on the No 10 website had called for a posthumous government apology to the computer pioneer.

In 1952 Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency after admitting a sexual relationship with a man. Two years later he killed himself.

The campaign was the idea of computer scientist John Graham-Cumming.

He was seeking an apology for the way the mathematician was treated after his conviction. He also wrote to the Queen to ask for Turing to be awarded a posthumous knighthood.

. September 12, 2009 at 1:19 pm

Gay injustice ‘was widespread’

By Julian Joyce
BBC News

Gordon Brown may have apologised for the “appalling” way gay computer pioneer Alan Turing was treated, but some believe the prime minister should go further.

Many gay men were “treated” in the same way as Alan Turing – given powerful drugs or electric shocks to “cure” them of their homosexuality.

Turing – a wartime hero who helped break the Enigma code – killed himself in 1954.

His suicide has been blamed on a combination of depression brought on by the loss of his government job, and on unpleasant physical side effects induced by the drugs he was forced to take.

But the talented scientist was not the only victim of Britain’s repressive anti-gay laws.

In 1962, Army captain Billy Clegg-Hill died during medically-supervised “aversion therapy”, prescribed by a judge following his arrest for homosexual offences.

Like Alan Turing, Mr Clegg-Hill was given the choice of prison or “therapy” conducted by doctors who believed homosexuality was a treatable disease.

Mr Clegg-Hill’s sister, Alison Braithwaite, told the BBC: “Billy’s death was covered up by the Army – at the time his death certificate said he died of natural causes.”

It was only in 1996 a BBC documentary uncovered the real reason for his death.

. November 15, 2010 at 10:57 am

Fight Begins To Secure Turing Papers For Bletchley Park Museum

“Auction house Christie’s is planning to sell offprints of Alan Turing’s early work for an estimated £500,000 — and the fight has begun to raise the money so UK codebreaking museum and charity Bletchley Park can house the documents in the building where Turing performed his war-winning work and birthed the concept of a modern ‘universal computer.’ If the money isn’t raised, the papers could disappear into a private archive, never to be seen again.”

. December 18, 2010 at 11:01 pm

Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing’s papers fail to sell

Papers published by World War II codebreaker Alan Turing have failed to sell at auction – raising hopes they could be kept in the UK.

The Manchester University scientist, who killed himself in 1954, created a machine at Bletchley Park to crack messages in the German Enigma code.

His research papers failed to reach a reserve price at Christie’s on Tuesday.

It means a campaign to raise funds to buy them for the Bletchley Park trust for public display will continue.

Turing, who has been called the “father of the computer”, published only 18 papers in his short career.

The collection, which contains his first published paper, his pioneering work on artificial intelligence and the foundations of the digital computer, had a guide price of between £300,000 and £500,000.

But the BBC’s Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, who attended the auction in London, said bidding stalled at £240,000.

He said this gave campaigners – who failed to raise enough money to match the guide price – another chance to secure the papers.

“In a way it was the best result they could hope for this afternoon,” he added.

. December 10, 2011 at 3:47 pm
. February 7, 2012 at 7:20 pm

A petition signed by over 21,000 people asked the UK Government to grant a pardon to Alan Turing. That request has now been declined. A statement in the House of Lords explained the reasoning: ‘A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.'”

. April 22, 2012 at 1:13 am
. May 9, 2012 at 8:12 pm

David Stutz has posted a small collection of obituaries for Alan Turing after he was hounded to suicide as a punishment for being gay. Here’s my favorite:

“For those who knew him here [at Sherborne] the memory is of an even-tempered, lovable character with an impish sense of humour and a modesty proof against all achievement. You would not take him for a Wrangler, the youngest Fellow of King’s and the youngest F.R.S. [Fellow of the Royal Society], or as a Marathon runner, or that behind a negligé appearance he was intensely practical. Rather you recollected him as one who buttered his porridge, brewed scientific concoctions in his study, suspended a weighted string from the staircase wall and set it swinging before Chapel to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth by its change of direcction by noon, produced proofs of the postulates of Euclid, or brought bottles of imprisoned flies to study their “decadence” by inbreeding. On holidays in Cornwall or Sark he was a lively companion even to the extent of mixed bathing at midnight. During the war he was engaged in breaking down enemy codes, and had under him a regiment of girls, supervised to his amusement by a dragon of a female. His work was hush-hush, not to be divulged even to his mother. For it he was awarded the O.B.E. He also adopted a young Jewish refugee and saw him through his education. Besides long distance running, his hobbies were gardening and chess; and occasionally realistic water-colour painting.

In all his preoccupation with logic, mathematics, and science he never lost the common touch; in a short life he accomplished much, and to the roll of great names in the history of his particular studies added his own.” — The Sherbornian, Summer Term 1954

. July 25, 2013 at 11:56 am
. December 23, 2013 at 7:35 pm
. December 24, 2013 at 10:26 am
. February 23, 2015 at 5:49 pm

Alan Turing’s Family Urges Pardon for 49,000 Men Convicted of “Gross Indecency”

The family of scientist Alan Turing delivered a petition to British officials on Monday calling for 49,000 men to be pardoned for “gross indecency” convictions, AFP reports. Turing was charged in 1952 under the now-discarded law, which criminalized homosexual behavior, and the chemical castration he received as a result was followed by his apparent suicide a few years later. The petition, hosted by change.org, bears more than 523,000 signatures.

. October 20, 2016 at 7:41 pm
. October 20, 2016 at 7:42 pm
. February 3, 2017 at 10:53 am

Alan Turing law

The “Alan Turing law” is an informal term for the law in the United Kingdom, contained in the Policing and Crime Act 2017, which serves as an amnesty law to retroactively pardon men who were cautioned or convicted under historical legislation that outlawed homosexual acts. The provision is named after Alan Turing, the World War II codebreaker and computing pioneer, who was convicted for gross indecency in 1952. Turing, himself, received a royal pardon in 2013. The law applies in England and Wales.

. June 26, 2017 at 12:30 pm

Canada to apologise for ‘LGBT purge’ in government

During the Cold War, hundreds of gay men and lesbians in Canada lost government and military jobs because of their sexual orientation after being harassed and interrogated under a national security campaign now dubbed the “LGBT purge”.

. June 26, 2017 at 12:36 pm

Activists and others who have lobbied the government for years on this issue say the shame of being forced out of careers has left many with emotional scars.

Like Thwaites, “Bernie” is part of the class action lawsuit. He asked his real name not be used to protect his family’s privacy.

In 1984, the ex-sailor had just celebrated his 23rd birthday when military police asked if they could search his apartment. At first, he thought they were looking for drugs.

What they found were birthday cards sitting on his dining room table, many “gay oriented”, he said.

He was repeatedly interrogated by military police, asked detailed questions about his sexual activity. He was told to give up the names of other gay people in the military he knew.

He refused. Within months he was discharged.

“They considered me a security risk. They called me a sexual deviant. They offered me rehabilitation. I said: ‘I’m not sick.'”

He says his unit – all straight men – took him out to a gay bar on his last day.

“The ones who actually had an issue with gay people were outnumbered, they really were,” he says.

“But since it was such a powerful charge, such a powerful thing, it didn’t matter. All you needed was an accusation.”

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