PETER FROST visits Bletchley Park to celebrate the centenary of Alan Turing the father of computers.
Ten leading scientists including Stephen Hawkins have published an open letter to David Cameron demanding he should “formally forgive” the mathematician Alan Turing.
This comes at the end of a year that marks the centenary of Turing’s – the father of computers – birth.
The letter comes after Lord Sharkey, a Liberal Democrat peer and one of the signatories, introduced a private member’s bill in the Lords to grant Turing an official pardon.
Other signatories to the letter include Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, Sir Paul Nurse, the head of the Royal Society, and Lady Trumpington, who worked for Turing during the war.
Mathematician Turing was one of the leading code breakers at the legendary war time code breaking centre at Bletchley Park.
Bletchley Park, on the edge of what is now Milton Keynes, was the site of the United Kingdom’s main decryption establishment in the Second World War where Nazi codes were broken.
Most important were the ciphers of the German Enigma and Lorenz machines. The high-level intelligence produced at Bletchley Park played a crucial part in the Allied victory.
Bletchley Park was also the place that saw the conception and birth of the modern computer.
Given that sort of history you would expect any nation in the world to have turned it into a celebration of national pride. It should be a sparkling, well funded and well maintained tribute to its unique place in technological history and the victory over fascism.
Not here. Britain ignored the place for years. It was even threatened with demolition and clearance. Only the dedicated work of countless volunteers and enthusiasts have preserved and saved it for future generations to marvel at.
Today it’s a motley, not to say, scruffy collection of museums and displays run by a diverse collection of enthusiast’s groups. It is still an amazing place to visit.
Disgracefully it wasn’t until last year that Bletchley Park finally received a Heritage Lottery Fund Grant large enough to finally restore the site, and tell its story in the way it deserves. Even then the volunteers had to raise matching funds. By June this year they had successfully raised the money to unlock the grants.
Alan Mathison Turing worked at Bletchley Park. Mathematician, code breaker and cryptanalyst, Turing was the man who invented the computer. He is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. He was born a century ago in 1912. He was also gay.
At Bletchley Park he was in charge of Hut 8, the key section responsible for breaking German naval codes. He devised a number of ways of unlocking German ciphers, including electromechanical machines – early computers – that unlocked the codes generated by the famous Enigma machines.
After the war, in 1952, Turing’s homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution. Turing met a 19-year-old called Arnold Murray. He invited him to his house. Murray betrayed him.
A friend of Murray burgled Turing’s house, confident that the mathematicians, fearful of exposure, would not tell the police. The two men misjudged Turing. He reported the theft and admitted a sexual relationship with Murray.
To avoid prison Turing accepted chemical castration with female hormones. The treatment ruined his health and fitness. Previously he had often run the forty miles from Bletchley Park to London for meetings. Only an injury had kept him out of the 1948 London Olympic marathon team.
Turing died in 1954, a broken man – he was 41. He bit into an apple dipped in cyanide. An inquest said suicide; his mother believed it was an accident. Some even suspected he may have been murdered.
It took 55 years before British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, responding to a petition, made an official public apology for the appalling way Alan Turing was treated.
“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.” Brown wrote “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was, under homophobic laws were treated terribly.”
Shamefully, however, the extraordinary achievements of this British scientific genius have still never been properly recognised. The present state of Bletchley Park is an outstanding example of this although Turing does have a statue in Manchester.
Some say Apple computer’s logo commemorates Turing’s curious death. Turing admirer Stephen Fry asked the late Apple founder Steve Jobs if the story was true. “Sadly not” said Jobs “but God, I wish it were.”
First published in the Morning Star, 2012 as part of the campaign to get Alan Turing a royal pardon for his prosecution for homosexuality. Turing finally got his pardon on Christmas Eve 2013.