2012 has been announced as the Alan Turing Year. Next Saturday, 23 June, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Mathieson Turing. There have already been various events to mark the anniversary – on radio and television, and there will be a conference on Turing in Manchester this weekend. Turing was a mathematician, a very good one, possibly a genius – but nevertheless, most mathematicians don’t get this kind of celebrity treatment.
Turing’s fame depends on 2 periods of his life:
Firstly, during World War II, he led the team of cryptographers at Bletchley Park who cracked the German Enigma Code, thereby (according to Winston Churchill) shortening the war by 2 years.
Secondly, in 1952, the Manchester police charged him with ‘gross indecency’ for a consensual homosexual act. He was given the choice of imprisonment, or a series of compulsory injections of oestrogen to cause ‘chemical castration’. He chose the latter, but he was found dead 2 years later, having apparently eaten cyanide smeared on an apple. There was no suicide note, and his mother never accepted it, but the general consensus is that he killed himself.
So there you have it. Two evocative stories of triumph and tragedy, and Turing, a shy and awkward nerd who stuttered and chewed his fingernails, emerges as a hero and a reluctant gay icon.
During their work at Bletchley Park, Turing’s team effectively invented the computer. Relying on valves rather than transistors, let alone silicon chips, the ‘Turing bombe’ was huge, unwieldy and slow, but it could crunch numbers. The code breakers fed it the numbers on paper strips – like old-fashioned punch cards – and eventually it spat out details of Germany’s submarine deployment.
Turing’s real mathematical breakthrough was to conceptualise a machine that could do many different things, depending on what instructions it was given. Until then, people built machines for one specific purpose: to grind corn, or pump water, or travel on rails. This universal machine lies at the heart of modern computing: every time I download an app to my smart phone that can send email, or catalogue photos, or translate Latin, or toss Angry Birds across the screen, I owe a debt to this conceptual breakthrough.
My husband, the mathematician, says many of Turing’s other mathematical papers were at least as important as the work he did at Bletchley Park (though the Nazis may disagree). In any case, I’m not qualified to comment on that. Instead, I’ll stick to what I know, the history of the Turing family.
For years I’ve been writing (and procrastinating over) a biography of Walter Stevenson Davidson, a Scot from Aberdeenshire who spent 4 years in New South Wales from 1805 to 1809. After that, he made a fortune as an opium trader in China. Davidson’s grandmother was Katherine Turing, and her brother was the British Consul in Middelburg, in the Netherlands, where there was a sizeable colony of Scottish traders in the mid-18th century.
Walter married a cousin, Anne Mathieson. Her mother was another Turing descendant; her father was a West India merchant who owned plantations in Jamaica. Her brother became a tea planter in Ceylon [Sri Lanka]. Walter and Anne’s daughter Catherine married her distant cousin, Robert Turing, still carrying on the family tradition as British Consul in the Netherlands.
Alan Mathieson Turing came from this family. Mathematical genius seems to appear quite randomly in the population. So, for all we know, does homosexuality. Turing’s family history is probably quite irrelevant to the man he became. But nevertheless…
During these celebrations – if that is what they are: how do you celebrate such a sad and truncated life? – there has been a lot of nationalist stereotyping about the eccentric British nature of the work done at Bletchley Park. Its bicycle sheds and dreadful food and ramshackle organisation – and entrenched class and sexual divisions – are brought out well in Robert Harris’ novel, Enigma (1995).
But the Poles made the first breakthroughs in the Enigma Code, and Turing himself was a product, not just of Britain, but of a wider British world of formal and informal empire.
And the manner of his death can be blamed, however remotely, on those other British ex-colonials, the Americans. Apparently Turing had enjoyed another technological breakthrough of his day, Walt Disney’s 1937 full-length feature cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In it the evil stepmother dies by eating a poisoned apple, and it seems he thought it an appropriate death for a wicked queen.