British Apology to Codebreaker

October 12, 2009

Richard Dawkins—scientist and humanist—was one of thousands of online petitioners to call on the British government to apologize for its mistreatment of Alan Turing in 1952.

Who was Alan Turing? He was a codebreaking hero of World War II who slipped into relative obscurity after his suicide in 1954. Born in 1912, Alan Mathison Turing was a brilliant mathematician who worked at Britain’s codebreaking center, devising techniques for cracking German ciphers and creating the “Turing bombe,” a cryptanalytic machine which helped reveal settings for the Nazis’ Enigma encryption machine.

After the war, working at the National Physical Laboratory, Turing created one of the first designs for the ACE , a stored-program computer. He is considered the father of modern computer science. He also did pioneering work in such diverse fields as artificial intelligence and chemical reactions. (See Wikipedia: “Alan Turing.” )

In 1952, Turing was convicted of gross indecency—that is, of being gay—the same crime Oscar Wilde was convicted of half a century earlier. Turing was forced to choose between prison and chemical castration, then he was given injections of the female hormone estrogen for a year. In 1954, Turing died of cyanide poisoning, apparently a suicide. (A partially eaten apple was found by his body but was never tested for the poison.) In 1967, Britain decriminalized homosexuality.

As a result of online petitions (one for Brits, another for everyone else), Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave the requested posthumous apology to Turing on September 11, 2009. Brown said in part, “The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.” He added, “We’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”

I am proud to have signed the petition calling for an apology to Turing. In addition to my interest as an amateur codebreaker , I am—more importantly—a supporter of human rights, including gay rights. There is still time to sign the “World Turing Petition”: go to the website.