The Most famous in the group of individuals who deciphered German messages encrypted via the Enigma device was the mathematician, Alan Turing. He was one among those people who gives the impression to be one step ahead of everyone else within the field of mathematics and science. He and a team of individuals at Bletchley Park in England, an area of the top secret center dedicated to deciphering the German coded messages during the Second World War, they helped resolving the conflict by deciphering the Nazi’s most difficult codes.
Early Life and Education
Alan Turing was born in 1912, the second of two brothers. As a boy, Turing was very intelligent and athletically gifted. He rode his bike everywhere. He drove almost 100 kilometers to his school on the first day, stuck far away because of a train strike. He arrived to school on time. The teachers in the school didn’t always recognize Turing’s talent. He was almost stopped getting a completion certificate because teachers thought that he might fail. While he was excellent in science, his headmaster said “If he just wants to be a science specialist, why he is wondering in a public school.”
In 1928 he met his new friend Christopher Morcom. They became excellent friends. They even researched intellectual problems in physics and arithmetic together. Sometimes they were seen sending messages to each other during class. They were really very close and at this time Alan allegedly developed a crush for Christopher. However, their friendship didn’t last because in 1930, when Alan was 17, Christopher died of tuberculosis.
After the death of his friend Alan began to find the character of his consciousness and how it was related to matter. This led Alan to think about the concept of the mind as a machine that could be recreated with mathematical logic. Turing attended Kings College in Cambridge. He earned a prestigious degree in 1934 and a King’s College scholarship in 1935. He attended Princeton University for a couple of years returning to England just before the war.
The Second World War and the Father of Modern Computing.
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Alan went to work for British headquarters of cryptanalytics in Bletchley Park. The People at Bletchley Park worked 24 hours daily to decipher various German messages and provided the Allies, information about German intentions which will be used on battlefields, within the sky and the oceans, giving them a view of the German Reich to try and understand the working and plans of the murderous regime.
In Bletchley, Alan was known to be a bit eccentric. He would ride to work in a gas mask to shield himself from pollen. His bike had a nasty chain, and rather than replacing it, he kept a timer in his head, counting the pedal rotations needed before it fell – then fixing it before it happened. He would also attach his cup to the radiator with a chain to avoid it being taken by someone else.
In “Hut 8”, Alan who was always referred as ‘professor’ and his team developed an earlier version of computer designed by the Poles or Polish, working on deciphering German Enigma machine codes. With this work and Turing’s ability to analyze patterns and equations the team in Hut 8 started deciphering more and more German codes, better referred to as U-boat codes or ship codes which were ordered by German fleets to their victims and hunting grounds. As the war progressed and the messages became more complex, Turing and team at Bletchley Park invented more complex machines which could quickly decipher German messages. At its peak, Bletchley deciphered 84,000 communications per month.
After the World war II, Winston Churchill called the submarine was the only threat, which basically scared him during the war. Although many have worked on this problem, without Alan Turing, the solution to the deciphering could take much longer time. (The time which Allies didn’t had), or perhaps wouldn’t have happened at all. His work undoubtedly shortened the war and saved many many lives . It also laid the foundations for the technological age which we live in today. For his work during the war, Turing was awarded the Royal Order of the British Empire by the King, but that, like his work, remained a secret for several years.
The Reality and The Betrayal
Alan Turing was a homosexual, and decades before its decriminalization in 1967, homosexuality was persecuted and prosecuted in England, similar to many other nations at that time. After World War II, when the cold war began to heat up, Turing was arrested for “gross indecency.” Admitting guilt, Turing was offered a jail or conditional probation. He chose parole. As a condition of the probation he had to take large doses of “hormone therapy”. The goal was to make him or other homosexuals to keep physically incapable of having sex, and the treatment had terrible side effects on his health and well-being.
Following his conviction, he was banned from further working for the Government and his security clearance was revoked. His past had become a topic of an investigation, because the authorities were worried that his homosexuality may have been used as blackmail by the Soviet Union. No evidence whatsoever was found.
On June 8, 1952, Turing’s housekeeper found his body. A half eaten apple that has never been tested for poison and a “to-do” list were next to his bed. The official reason behind death was suicide although many have questioned this conclusion. In the years after his death, Turing’s work became increasingly recognizable by the general public and a common public support to readdress the injustice of Turing’s life came to the fore.
In 2009, after intense lobbying, The Prime Minister of The United Kingdom apologized for treating Turing, but wasn’t officially pardoned. The Minister of Justice said that the pardon “is not considered appropriate since the mathematician was properly convicted of what was a criminal offense at that point of time in history”. In 2012, many influential people, including Stephen Hawking lobbied the UK government to officially pardon Alan Turing. In his own words he said, “One of the most brilliant mathematicians of the modern era. Yet successive governments seem incapable of forgiving his conviction for the then crime of being a homosexual.”
In 2013, the Queen pardoned Turing. The then Prime Minister of The UK, David Cameron said: “His action saved countless lives. He also left a remarkable national legacy through his outstanding scientific achievements, often called as the father of modern computing.”
In 2014, the film “The Imitation Game” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, showed Turing’s struggles, and gave impetus to the new realization of his incredible genius and knowledge of his persecution. In June 2019, the British Government announced that Turing’s figure would be put in a £50 note. A small consolation to those who knew and supported Turing.
The note contains a suitably enigmatic Turing quote. “This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.”
Learn more here: Alan Turing – The Father of Modern Computing
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