UK Government Apologizes for Appalling Treatment of Turing

Contributing Editor

Alan TuringAlmost 60 years after his death, the UK Government has apologized for how Alan Turing was treated after World War II.

Turing is widely considered to be the father of modern computing. He was the first person to propose the notion of a “Universal Turing Machine”; a single device that could perform the tasks of many others. We now refer to it as machine that is programmable — Turing invented the concept of software and many of us owe our livelihoods to his foresight. He was also responsible for the Turing test; an assessment of a machine’s ability to demonstrate intelligence that is still referenced by AI researchers today.

However, Turing was best known for his cryptanalysis work at Bletchly Park in the UK. He contributed several ideas that helped the British Government translate Enigma machine messages sent by German naval intelligence. His work with Tommy Flowers resulted in Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer.

Bletchly Park projects probably shortened the war by several years, but Turing’s work remained secret until the 1970s. Although he was awarded the OBE for his services during the war, the UK Government ordered the destruction of all computing equipment and research notes.

Turing was homosexual and lived at a time when it was illegal and considered to be a mental illness. In 1952, he was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to a choice of jail or chemical castration. He chose the latter and, two years later, died of cyanide poisoning. The coroner’s official verdict was suicide, but there is speculation regarding the possibility of assassination owing to Turing’s sexuality being perceived as a security risk.

A recent petition posted on the Number 10 website received thousands of signatories demanding that the UK Government apologize for Turing’s treatment. The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has released a statement that includes:

…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.

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.

Read the full statement…

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  • http://www.dangrossman.info Dan Grossman

    It’s about damn time they made an official apology.

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    Yep – it’s taken 60 years and took a petition.

    I really don’t think the UK Government understood what had been achieved at Bletchly. The history of computing could have been much different and possibly more advanced had the knowledge not been hidden by the official secrets act.

  • dougoftheabaci

    It’s sad that they couldn’t make the disconnect of the man and his achievements. He was, and is, one of the greatest minds in the history of technological advancement. I, as does every single person who reads this blog, owe the existence of my career to this man.
    It’s not that he deserved better, it’s that he still deserves better.
    Now if we could only get the church to apologize for Galileo…

  • http://www.dangrossman.info Dan Grossman

    Algorithms, complexity theory, theory of computation, decidability theory… half my master’s degree in computer science was spent learning fields of math created by Turing nearly 80 years ago.

  • http://www.jakub.chodorowicz.pl/ chodorowicz

    It’s worth noting, that as to the breaking of the Enigma machine he was using the results and solutions made by polish mathematicians (Rejewski, Zygalski, Różycki) who broke the code for the first time in 1932. Anyway – it’s about time, the founder of the computer science deserved that.

  • http://www.jakub.chodorowicz.pl/ chodorowicz

    It’s worth noting, that as to the breaking of the Enigma machine he was using the results and solutions made by polish mathematicians (Rejewski, Zygalski, Różycki) who broke the code for the first time in 1932. Anyway – it’s about time, the founder of the computer science deserved that.

  • Dexter

    @dougoftheabaci
    You missed the news: the Church apologized to Galileo several years ago, something like 1992…

    Dexter

  • Dexter

    @chodorowicz

    That’s true. Too bad that nobody listened to them. They surely had the first solution. However, it was in Bletchey Park that Enigmas where actively deciphered.

    A great part in all this sad story was played by the extreme secrecy that sorrounded Bletchey Park (or similar initiatives like US Navajo CodeTalkers) for many years after the war. Many historians, now that everything is in the open, acknowledge that cryptoanalysis played a key role in WWII. But all these people, who where effectively war veterans (or heroes) even if they never fired a single shot, but “just” worked on words and numbers, could never ask for their fair recognition.

    Turing’s story is even more saddening because even in his mistreatment, he never tried to use his status or his past war work to avoid all the abuse.

    Dexter

  • James

    Turing’s ideas were great and they must remember his contribution…
    -James-

  • http://www.heyraena.com raena

    I do hope they follow this up with an apology and acknowledgement of anyone else who had to suffer this treatment.

    Not that Turing isn’t special, just that there are others who suffered this barbarism and didn’t deserve it either.

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    @chodorowicz
    It is worth noting that Turing is the most well-known of the Bletchly team and much of his code-breaking work built upon those of others.

    Many people remained unrecognised partly because their efforts were kept secret. Tommy Flowers (mentioned above) was almost written out of history, received no formal award, and was given £1,000. That did not even cover the money he personally invested in the Colossus project.

  • markfiend

    @raena:
    To be fair, the full text of the apology does mention other gay people (mis)treated as Turing was:

    Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly.

  • markfiend

    That second paragraph was supposed to be in blockquote. Oh well.

  • StevenHu

    Turing has his own listing in Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing

    Steve

  • Gregory

    Brown’s statement reads, “I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.”

    That’s great. But, in reality, it should be read or understood (since Brown did not state it), I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what we, the Government, did to him.

  • markfiend

    Gregory: Gordon Brown was 3 when Alan Turing died. He had nothing to do with what happened to Turing. He can’t honestly say that it was something “we did to him”; “we” includes “I”. People who are long-gone actually made the decisions that killed Turing.

    That this apology was made at all is a great victory (can you imagine an apology like this happening in the USA?) and all some people can do is meaningless quibbling over the wording.