Alan Turing is almost one of the forgotten computer pioneers and a hero of World War II. Hardly surprising really; it was the British Government who stripped him of his security clearance at GCHQ when he was convicted in 1952 of being homosexual and who put him under surveillance. He was also sentenced to receive “treatment” – a course of drugs that had the effect of chemically castrating him, and which caused him to grow breasts. As a result, he committed suicide at the age of 41 by eating an apple laced with cyanide. The symbol of the half-eaten apple lives on today as the trademark of Apple Computer, in what may be an apocryphal reference to Turing’s role in pioneering computer science and to the manner of his death.
I have to say that over the last twenty years, public knowledge of both the man’s achievements and his persecution have grown, but I am still surprised when I come across folks working today in the computer industry who know nothing about him other than the fact that there’s something called the Turing Test.
Now, a British computer scientist, John Graham-Cumming, has had the idea of petitioning the British Government to make a formal apology to Turing. I’ve added my name to the list of signatories (only open to UK citizens), even though I have some reservations. First, and most obviously, it’s a bit late for Turing. But perhaps more importantly, he wasn’t the only homosexual to have had their life destroyed by the poisonous bigotry of the society at the time. An apology to him should really be an apology to all. I see that Richard Dawkins has become involved with the campaign. He makes the point that a practical outcome would be for the Government to provide a permanent financial endowment to Bletchley Park, where Turing and others contributed so much to the wartime effort.
The campaign also got a mention on Channel 4 News:
I note, however, that in keeping with the slipping standards of journalism these days, the video is titled, and introduced, as the campaign to “pardon” him. It’s not a pardon – it’s an apology, you stupid people! Honestly, education standards are not what they were in my day…
Oh, and one last connection: I used to live practically around the corner from where he was born in Maida Vale…
Update: Well, Turing got his apology! Well done to John Graham-Cumming for having the idea in the first place.