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Alan Turing (Part II – posthumous recognition)

By John Coss, Vice Chair of Stockport Humanists

Continuing our series of profiles of humanists who are not as widely known as they should be, including distinguished men and women not generally known to be humanists.

Alan Turing - one of the most significant people to have shaped the modern world

Part I of this profile, published in Humanistically Speaking last month, reviewed Turing’s life and work. At the time of his death, there was little public appreciation of his achievements, and in Part II, I review how he has come to be recognised as one of the most significant people to have shaped the modern world.

Obituaries of Turing

A number of obituaries were published after Turing’s death, mostly somewhat circumspect, as in The Times and the Manchester Guardian. An extensive biographical memoir by Turing’s friend and mentor Max Newman was published by the Royal Society in 1955, opening with ‘The sudden death of Alan Turing on 7 June 1954 deprived mathematics and science of a great original mind at the height of its power.’ The only reference to his code breaking achievements was the somewhat cryptic ‘ . . in 1939 the war broke out. For the next six years he was fully occupied with his duties for the Foreign Office.’ – despite Newman being well aware of the true nature of Turing’s achievements from his own time at Bletchley Park. We had to wait until 2019 for The New York Times obituary, though at least this could then be more comprehensive.

Professional recognition

In 1966, the Association for Computing Machinery established the A. M. Turing Award, often referred to as the ‘Nobel Prize of Computing’. The award recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the field of computing. Since its inception, the Turing Award has been awarded to many of the most important figures in computing, including several who were directly influenced by Turing's work.

The Alan Turing Building at the University of Manchester

2007 saw the completion of the Alan Turing Building at the University of Manchester, which houses the School of Mathematics, the Photon Science Institute and the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics. There are other Alan Turing buildings, including one on the Open University campus (which is near Bletchley Park), and at Surrey University (in Guildford, where the Turing family lived for a while).

In 2008, the Princeton Alumni Weekly recognised Turing as Princeton’s second most influential alumnus, after James Madison (4th President of the USA).

A bronze bust of Alan Turing was unveiled at Sherborne School, Dorset, in 2021. Turing was a pupil at the school 1926-1931.

A number of events in 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of Turing’s birth. Manchester University and Cambridge University held Turing Centenary Conferences, which brought together scientists, researchers, and enthusiasts from around the world to discuss Turing's legacy and impact on computer science, artificial intelligence, cryptography, and other fields. A number of events were held at Bletchley Park, including the unveiling of a bronze statue of Turing. And the Royal Society and the Science Museum in London organized a series of events and exhibitions, including a lecture by Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, on Turing's influence on science and society.

In 2015, the Alan Turing Institute was established as the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence.

Bletchley Park

The code-breaking work at Bletchley Park remained secret for many years, until partly declassified in 1974. Even then, access to some aspects was restricted, and it was not until the early 1990s that the full story became generally known. In his excellent 1983 biography - Alan Turing:The Enigma - Andrew Hodges provided a reasonably comprehensive account, which has been updated in later editions as more has become known. Hodges also maintains an informative website on all aspects of Turing’s life and work. Jack Copeland has also written extensively on Turing.

Bletchley Park’s link with GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters in the UK) finally ended in 1987. It then faced the prospect of demolition and redevelopment, but thanks to the Bletchley Park Trust established in 1992 it is now a thriving museum and heritage site, with an extensive range of exhibits, many relating to Turing, now including the restored Hut 8 where much of his work took place. It is fitting that the separate National Museum of Computing shares the site, with working models of the Bombe and Colossus.

Turing as a gay icon

Turing is widely regarded as a gay icon, reflecting not only his contributions to the field of computing and cryptography, but also his courage in living openly as a gay man at a time when this was heavily stigmatized and criminalised. His life and legacy are seen as examples of the persecution and discrimination that LGBT people have faced throughout history, and serve as a reminder of the ongoing struggles for LGBT rights and the important contributions that LGBT individuals have always made to society.

He appears on the current £50 note, the first person known to be gay to do so. In welcoming this, the current GCHQ director, Jeremy Fleming, said it ‘confirms his status as one of the most iconic LGBT+ figures in the world’, and he saw it as a ‘landmark moment’ in the country’s history and a cause for both celebration and sadness, with Turing’s legacy a reminder of the value of embracing all aspects of diversity, but also the work we still need to do to become truly inclusive. Amongst others who commented was gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who said, ‘It's a real milestone that signifies the degree of acceptance of LGBT people at the highest level of our society. Alan Turing is not only an icon for the LGBT community, he is an iconic figure for the whole of British society.’

Official recognition

In 2009, responding to a petition posted in the No 10 website, Gordon Brown issued a public apology on behalf of the British government for the way Turing was treated after the war. This apology acknowledged the injustice of his 1952 conviction for homosexuality and the chemical castration he underwent as a result, which ultimately led to his suicide two years later. As the prime minister said, ‘the debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.’ He ended by saying, ‘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.’

In December 2013, Turing was granted a posthumous royal pardon, following a request from the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, who referred to his work at Bletchley Park, and went on to say, ‘His later life was overshadowed by his conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and which has now been repealed . . . A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.’

While this was broadly welcomed, many critics pointed out that it did not apply to other gay men. This was rectified by provisions in the Policing and Crime Act 2017, known informally as the ‘Alan Turing law’. (This Act applies to England and Wales; similar legislation was passed in Scotland, and its application to those still living was made easier by later legislation.)

Turing has also been commemorated on a number of postage stamps, including one issued in Britain to mark his 100th birthday.

Popular appreciation

Turing’s life and work have been the subject of many books aimed at the general public, plays such as Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore, TV dramas and documentaries, and perhaps most notably The Imitation Game, a 2014 film based on Hodges’ biography, which won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. These have not always been true to life; in particular, The Imitation Game, which focuses mainly on his time at Bletchley Park and his later conviction for homosexuality, contains many inaccuracies.

In 1999, Time Magazine included Turing in its list of the 100 most important people of the 20th Century.

Turing Memorial in Sackville Gardens, Manchester

There are now a number of plaques and statues commemorating Turing. Particularly noteworthy is the memorial in Sackville Gardens, close to the former building of the maths department of Manchester University and the gay bars in Canal Street, where Turing apparently spent many evenings. It was unveiled by Andrew Hodges in 2002 in a ceremony I attended. The statue was included on the route of the Olympic torch in 2012, and it has become traditional for flowers to be left there on 23rd June each year to mark his birthday.

In addition to the events in 2012 noted earlier, the 100th anniversary of Turing’s birth was honoured in many other ways, in Britain and overseas, including a special edition of Monopoly and a Google doodle tribute. Channel 4 showed Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker, Manchester University ran a popular Alan Turing Cryptography Competition for schools, and Garry Kasparov won a game of chess against Turing's early computer chess program during the international conference at Manchester Town Hall.

The BBC commissioned a series of articles to mark Turing’s centenary, including Alan Turing: why the tech world's hero should be a household name. It has broadcast numerous programmes about him, both on TV and radio. In the 2019 BBC2 series Icons, the audience voted Turing the Greatest Person of the 20th Century, ahead of Einstein among scientists, and Mandela in the final round. While this is not a definitive assessment, it does show the high public regard in which he is now held. In a 2020 edition on Turing in the Radio 4 series In Our Time, Melvin Bragg pointed out that his reputation has grown as our reliance on computers has increased.


Royal Society obituary

Manchester University Alan Turing centenary conference

Wikipedia article on The Imitation Game

BBC2 Icons

Andrew Hodges Turing website

See Part I (published last month) for links relating to Turing’s life and achievements.

Note: This article was written on a Turing machine, with help from ChatGPT.

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