The Bank of England’s new polymer £50 note enters circulation today featuring a portrait of gay computer science pioneer Alan Turing.
Turing, who headed Britain’s team of codebreakers at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, is said to have been responsible for saving millions of lives and shortening the war in Europe by at least one year by cracking the German Navy’s Enigma code, a highly sophisticated system of sending randomly enciphered messages between complex machines.
In 1936, at the age of just 24, Turing published his “On Computable Numbers” paper, the principles of which underpin computer science even today and which was a largely theoretical work as the hardware required to put his theories into practice had yet to be invented.
After the war, his design for the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) was the first complete specification of an electronic stored-program all-purpose digital computer; he also wrote the first ever programming manual, and his programming system was used in the Ferranti Mark I, the first marketable electronic digital computer (1951).
In 1952, 15 years before male homosexuality was partially decriminalised in Britain, Turing was prosecuted and found guilty of gross indecency, following the discovery of his relationship with a 19 year old man in Manchester. As an alternative to a custodial sentence, he agreed to take female hormones to “treat” his homosexuality.
Alan Turing was found dead in bed at the age of 41. His death is often attributed to the hormone “treatment” he received at the hands of the authorities following his trial for being gay. Yet he died more than a year after the hormone doses had ended, and, in any case, the resilient Turing had borne that cruel treatment with what his close friend Peter Hilton called “amused fortitude”.
Also, to judge by the records of the inquest, no evidence at all was presented to indicate that Turing intended to take his own life, nor that the balance of his mind was disturbed (as the coroner claimed). In fact, his mental state appears to have been unremarkable at the time. Although suicide cannot be ruled out, it is also possible that his death was simply an accident, the result of his inhaling cyanide fumes from an experiment in the tiny laboratory adjoining his bedroom. Nor can murder by MI5 be entirely ruled out, given that Turing knew so much about cryptanalysis at a time when homosexuals were regarded as threats to national security.
In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology for Turing’s treatment by the British authorities and, in 2013 on the advice of Prime Minister at the time David Cameron, The Queen granted Turing a Royal Pardon.
Read our 2018 story on Peter Tatchell’s campaign to compensate persecuted gay men.