The Imitation Game, released last year in cinemas nationwide, tells the story of Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. This month The University of Nottingham is celebrating LGBT History Month with a series of events exploring the culture and history of LGBT people, including a public lecture about Alan Turing.
Alan Turing, widely considered the father of computer science, is an important figure in British history and the history of Computer Science. For the movie-goers aware of his story, the release of the film-biopic surrounding Turing’s tale of achievement and tragedy appears very exciting. For many others, this would be the first time they have come across Turing’s story.
Bletchley Park, World War II. Alan Turing, a British mathematician, joins the team involved in decrypting enemy communications, and creates the Enigma cracking machine.
Previously he had theorised the Turing machine, a hypothetical computational device, with the ability to operate on a tape of inputs using simple state based instructions to write outputs back to the tape. At Bletchley Park, Turing created the initial design for the ‘Bombe’, a machine used to crack the settings for the Enigma machine as they changed each day, and enabled British intelligence to intercept encrypted enemy communications. The Bombe was a physical machine essentially operating as a bespoke brute-force password cracker, attempting to find the right settings for Enigma by testing through each possible combination.
It was estimated that cracking Enigma shortened the war by two years, thus saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
In 1945 he was awarded with an OBE for his wartime services, although the work that Turing, and those working with him had completed whilst at Bletchley Park was held as a secured government secret, decades beyond the end of the war. Turing continued his work into computational theory, turning his efforts into developing a machine which could logically process information.
In the film, we are treated to a glimpse of Alan Turing’s school days, mixed into the main narrative. Turing’s close childhood friend Christopher, with whom he would exchange encrypted messages with Turing during school, dies. In creating his deciphering machine (named Christopher in the film – although in reality named Victory) there is a heartbreaking sense of beauty between the parallel Christophers, underlying Turing’s passion for bringing his ideas to life.
In 1952, several years after the end of World War II, Alan Turing was arrested in relation of his homosexuality, a crime at the time.
As punishment he was given the choice of either prison or hormone injections, intended to neutralise his libido in chemical castration. Turing chose hormone injections as to avoid imprisonment, allowing him to continue on his work. His body reacted badly to the treatment, causing him to gain weight, grow breasts and become lethargic. Turing felt horrible and humiliated.
Another two years later, 7th June 1954, Alan Turing died after eating a cyanide-laced apple, determined to be suicide by the inquest into his death. His mother and others believed the death to be an accident.
The technology that we have today, which so many of us depend on, could not exist without the theories Turing published.
We can look back at the achievements at Bletchley Park in great appreciation of just how much of the world of computer science was created right there alone.
Although he was honoured for his work whilst alive, Turing never received the recognition by the British people for his exact efforts during the war as we know them today, published decades after his death. In 2009, following an online petition of over 30,000 signatures, Gordon Brown officially apologised on behalf of the British government for Turing’s treatment. Four years later, in 2013 Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous pardon.
Whilst these gestures should be respected, there are still clear questions about what it truly meant for Turing to be pardoned. By receiving a pardon, Alan Turing is forgiven for being homosexual on the basis of his contributions. Why were the thousands of others also convicted and punished for their sexuality under the same law not pardoned as well? If all of past homosexuals were to be pardoned, the government would be making a bigger statement admitting that the law was wrong, undermining it thereby making it seem flimsy and inconsistent. In Turing’s case, it really speaks volumes about how exceptional it was for the establishment to admit guilt, to single him out and pardon him for his homosexuality because of the value of his work.
In response to the film, some critics (and family of the characters) were disappointed for it being hasty with the details, and misrepresenting characters and the story.
Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Turing as a difficult, arrogant, humourless and emotionally immature character. The commander of Bletchley Park, Alastair Denniston, is portrayed as an opponent, set out to make Turing’s work more difficult. Admittedly, compressing the life story of such a renowned, and mostly posthumously recognised man into a couple of hours, whilst allowing dramatisation for entertainment and keeping accuracy would be difficult.
Regardless of their accuracy for the finer details, films like The Imitation Game have an important purpose, they draw attention to the injustices faced by the brightest people and serve as a poetic way to honour their story. In many respects the film has similarities with the film Pride released a few months previous; both Pride and The Imitation Game are true stories on the struggles and oppression of LGBT people, both living courageous lives and dying as a result of what they believed in. Undeniably, our country owes Turing a lot more than posthumous apologies and films for his treatment. The Turing Test, a test of a machines ability to carry behaviour indistinguishable from a human, seems slightly ironic in light of the shamefully inhumane treatment as a homosexual despite the lives saved as a result of his service. Many including Benedict Cumberbatch, have suggested that Alan Turing deserves to be on our banknotes, a way of honouring our most historically valued people.
We should remember that Alan Turing is just another story in a long line, and fortunate to have had his story told for the world to hear. We shouldn’t forget that others like Alan Turing, with their own similar stories continue quietly making astounding differences for the good of our country and world today.
Professor David Brailsford will be delivering a lecture about Alan Turing on Wednesday 25th February, for more information visit The University of Nottingham LGBT History Month Blog.
Image courtesy of Ma_Co2013 via Flickr