We’re “turing” up the geek on this episode folks. Diving into the amazing and yet saddening story of gay genius Alan Turing. From his invaluable contributions during World War 2 to his lasting legacy in the fields of A.I. and Computers, this is a hero we must celebrate.

Alan Turing gay manSo join your favorite queers as we honor the sacrifices of one of our greatest inspirations. And as you listen on your phone or tablet or computer, remember you have these technologies because of the gays. You’re Welcome.
We’re heading over to the land of England today listeners. Specifically to the district of Maida Vale, in the city of Westminster, in the northern part of Paddington, of West London. Here on June 23, 1912 Alan Turing was born to a family of modest means and civil service. Alan had one older brother, John. And the two would spend much of their childhood away from their parents. Julius Turing was stationed in India as a government employee of Great Britain. However, wanting their sons to grow up in London, Julius and Ethel left their boys with a retired military couple.
As a young child it became quickly apparent that Alan was a genius. While his teachers noted his brilliance, it seems he advanced through school at a normal pace before heading off to Sherborne School. Sherborne was founded in 705 C.E/A.D. and has remained in the same location for over 1300 years. It is even said that Alfred the Great was once a student at Sherborne. It is listed in the top 1% of all schools in England. So needless to say, Alan received a top notch education at Sherborne. However, it does seem that his teachers fully grasped Turing’s potential. An old institute, Sherborne valued classical education and Alan seemed preoccupied with science and perceived fantasy. By age 16 Alan was reading and understanding Einstein’s work. Yet his teachers dismissed this “Science Specialist” as wasting his education.
Because Sherborne was and is an all boys boarding school, Alan received an education in a few areas. In 1928, at 16, Alan met another science nut and fellow genius Christopher Morcom. The two both bonded over their love for math and science, and no doubt the feelings of being outsiders in a school which valued classical training above modern conceptions. Alan once wrote to his mother about Christopher; I am sure I could not have found anywhere another companion so brilliant and yet so charming and unconceited. I regarded my interest in my work, and in such things as astronomy (to which he introduced me) as something to be shared with him and I think he felt a little the same about me …
It is obvious that Alan was in love with Christopher, but we do not know how deep their relationship actually went. The two began studying for college and Chris won a scholarship for Trinity College at the beginning of 1930. Alan was denied the scholarship and was heartbroken to be separated from his friend. Unfortunately, he would be further heartbroken when Chris suddenly died on February 13, 1930. The death of his friend would plague Alan for years and really all of his life. Prompting him to question matter and life after death. And eventually inspiring his 1932 essay on The Nature of the Spirit. Which used quantum physics to explain what happens to our consciousness after death. In practical terms, Alan was an atheist seeking spiritual meaning for his friends death. He would write to his mother about Christopher’s passing:

“I feel that I shall meet Morcom again somewhere and that there will be some work for us to do together as there was for us to do here… It never seems to have occurred to me to make other friends besides Morcom, he made everyone else seem so ordinary.”

Another result of Christopher’s death was a renewed motivation by Alan Turing to excel in his studies, and carry on the research he and Chris had dreamed about. In 1931, Turing was accepted to Kings College, a branch of the University of Cambridge, to study mathematics. As he left Sherborne a teacher wrote “He must remember that Cambridge will want sound knowledge rather than vague ideas.” Most likely referring to Alan’s outlandish fantasies of building a universal machine. After completing his undergraduate in 1934, Turing was elected to the King’s Fellowship program and began his dissertation on the Central Limit Theorem. Which would eventually inspire his well know 1936 thesis titled “Computable Numbers, With An Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (meaning- Decision problem). Later his thesis would simply be known as Turing’s Proof and would lay the foundation for that universal machine. This machine would later be built and become known, to this day, as the Turing Machine. An essential and fundamental mechanic for today’s computers.

Alan continued his studies at Princeton, interning under one of the top mathematicians of the day. By 1938 he had earned his doctorate in Mathematics and developed an electro-mechanical binary calculator. He also began studying cryptology around this time and when World War II broke out in 1939, Alan was moved to the headquarters of Britain’s Code and Cypher School in Bletchley Park (Basically The U.K.’s CIA for us Americans). Alan and his team were facing the Germans formidable code machine, Enigma. This was a machine which created a code allowing the Nazis to communicate with each other over enemy lines. While the Polish and the French has made a dent in deciphering Enigma, updates to the machine had proven frustrating. The Brit’s at Bletchley Park decided to take a crack at the code.

Alan was known to be a bit eccentric, though he was loved. He often ran the 40 miles to and from his meetings in London. He was quite an exceptional runner in fact and even tried out for the Olympics one year. However, he suffered an injury and was disqualified. Alan over saw Hut 8 at the Park and his employees and coworkers affectionately called him Prof. One individual described him as such: In the first week of June each year he would get a bad attack of hay fever, and he would cycle to the office wearing a service gas mask to keep the pollen off. His bicycle had a fault: the chain would come off at regular intervals. Instead of having it mended he would count the number of times the pedals went round and would get off the bicycle in time to adjust the chain by hand. Another of his eccentricities is that he chained his mug to the radiator pipes to prevent it being stolen.

By the spring of 1940, Alan and his team had designed their own machine – the Bombe- to crack Enigma. The Bombe was mostly designed by Turing and he conceived the bulk of his inspiration in one night. The machine worked and within 2 years was intercepting over 40,000 messages a day. By the end of the war that number would rise to 84,000 messages, with 2 codes broken every minute. Alan also designed a second machine to crack the Germans new coder, called Tunney. It was once said that Alan Turing knew what Hitlers messages were before Hitler did. And most importantly, his work in code breaking is said to have ended the war at least 2 years earlier. Saving millions of lives. For his service, Alan was made an officer of “The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” the highest civilian honor in England.

One other incident happened while Alan was at Hut 8. He began dating and then proposed to fellow scientist Joan Clarke. Joan was also a graduate of Cambridge quite a mathematician herself and gave Alan a run for his money. It’s not surprising to know that she was one of only two female cryptologists at Bletchley. And while she’s never been as publicly recognized as her male colleagues, Clarke did receive numerous awards and praise for her work. It is no wonder the two geniuses would find an interest with each other. It seems that Alan truly loved Joan, and this is why he proposed to her. Yet a few weeks later, he admitted to Clarke that he was a homosexual. Despite this, the two scientists attempted to make things work. No doubt they realized there were few options for Alan. And Joad did not seem at all distressed by his revelation that he was gay. In fact, she didn’t even seem surprised. Ultimately though it appears that Alan felt it would be unfair for him to marry Joan and the engagement was called off. Six years later Joan would marry a retired army officer.

Despite his grand success with the Enigma codes, Alan could not boast of his accomplishments because they were top secret. He finished his war tenure at the notorious Bell Labs – yes the name stems from Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who invested his money in the laboratory. And then in 1945, Alan began working for National Physical Laboratory (NPL) at Bushy Park in Teddington. Here Turing created his designs for ACE. The Automatic Computing Engine. While there was a lot of excitement around ACE, Alan was now in the world of corporations and not a high level government employee. Which meant he spent the next two years waiting for funding for his computer. Finally becoming irritated, Turing took a year off to study at Cambridge, and then took a position as head of the mathematics department at Victoria University in Manchester. In 1949 he became deputy director of the Computing Machine Laboratory. No doubt all of this bouncing around showed a sign of restlessness in the still young inventor.

While Alan had been job hunting, the National Physical Laboratory had designed the first computer based on the concept of the Turing Machine. While head of Computing Machine Laboratory, Alan designed the input-output system for the computer and developed the programming. Along with writing the world’s first programming manual. Two years later, his system would be installed in the first ever marketable, digital computer. It was also during this time that a few concepts came full circle for Alan. Still searching for a way to explain how consciousness survives and is created, Alan created the theory of A.I. – artificial intelligence. He hypothesized that the human brain is just a large digital computer. And he predicted that one day, computers would be just as conscious as humans. He even developed a criteria, the Turing Test, to test a computers intelligence against a humans.

With his professional career finally taking off again and his programming now in the first consumer computer, Alan was feeling pretty high. In December of 1951, when he was 39 years old, he met 19 year old Arnold Murray. The two met by chance one day on a walk. One author wrote of the encounter:

“Alan invited him [Murray] to lunch in the restaurant across the road. Fair and with blue eyes, undernourished and with his thin hair already receding, desperate for better things and more receptive than so many educated people, Arnold touched Alan’s soft spot for lost lambs, as well as other cords”

A few weeks later Arnold came over to Alan’s house. And then a few days later they spent the night together. Apparently Alan offended Arnold when he offered to give him cash. Whether Turing was simply trying to help the unemployed young man, or whether he was use to paying for his sex we do not know. The matters were made worse when Alan found that 10 Marks were missing from his wallet. He accused Arnold of stealing the money, which Arnold denied. But then just a week later Arnold asked to borrow some cash. On January 23, 1952 Alan’s house was burglarized. He reported the burglary to the police. A few days later, Arnold showed back up and confessed that a friend of his had robbed Turing. The two lovers made up and the next morning Alan went back to the police with the new information.

Unbeknownst to Turing, Arnold’s friend, Harry, had already been picked up by the police. Harry had been arrested on another charge and his fingerprints matched those taken in Alan’s house. Perhaps the officers were tipped off by Harry, perhaps they were suspicious because Harry was a homosexual. Either way, the police began to grill Alan on his relationship with Harry and Harry’s friend Arnold. Finally Turing admitted he was having an affair with Arnold Murray. The officers then coerced Alan into writing a 5 page statement full of every detail of his affair with Murray. After locking Alan up, the police picked up Arnold and charged both men with gross indecency. It seems that in all of this, Alan did not think he would actually wind up in deep trouble.This was his first ever arrest and he told the officers that Parliament was sure to legalize homosexuality soon. And while waiting for his trial, Alan wrote to Joan to tell her he’d been caught sleeping with another man but not to worry. “They’re not as savage as they used to be” He wrote in the letter.

On March 31, 1952 Alan was found guilty of indecency and given the choice of prison or chemical castration. Murray was also found guilty but given a conditional discharge with no further, immediate, punishments. Turing was forced to undergo estrogen injections for a year. He became impotent, and saw various changes to his body such as breast development. He also suffered deeply with depression and isolation as well as a huge professional loss. Alan’s security clearance was stripped away and he could no longer be a consultant for the British government. He wrote to a friend of this time saying, “I am both bound over for a year and obliged to take this organo-therapy for the same period. It is supposed to reduce sexual urge whilst it goes on… The psychiatrists seemed to think it useless to try and do any psychotherapy.”

Alan finished his court ordered hormone treatment in March of ‘53. However, he was never the same. He began experimenting with chemicals for a new kind of research. But on June 8, 1954 his house cleaner found him dead having eaten a cyanide coated apple. There have been many hypothesis surrounding his death. Some believe that Alan was killed by the state having been found out to be a homosexual. Who were considered high security risks. Others have speculated that the death was an accident since he had been experimenting with cyanide and could have forgotten he coated an apple with cyanide. But most people agree he committed suicide and most agree it was because of the humiliation he was forced to endure after being outed.

For the next 50 years Alan, the father of the computer and of A.I., was all but forgotten except in the world of technology. But in the 2000’s a renewed interest was stirred around the former war hero. Movies such as the Imitation Game and a push from Alan’s ancestors sparked a wave of outrage. In 2009 the Department of Labor made a public apology for Alan Turing and on December 24, 2013 Queen Elizabeth pardoned the disgraced hero. As a further sign of remorse, it was announced on July 15, 2019 that Turing would grace the face of the 50 pound note.

This episode takes place during World War 2, during the time where the Nazi’s branded gay men with pink triangles.

Recommended resources are any of the many books on Turing, Alan Turing Decoded being one of the top. Also check out Imitation Game.

Turing 1 – https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alan-Turing
Turing 2 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing
Turing 3 – https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jul/15/alan-turing-father-of-modern-computing-50-pound-note
Alan and Christopher – https://www.turing.org.uk/scrapbook/spirit.html
Alan and Murray – https://spartacus-educational.com/Alan_Turing.htm