Hounded by authorities and peers alike, British mathematician Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954 by biting into a cyanide-laced apple. A groundbreaking thinker in the field of pure math, a man principally responsible for breaking the Enigma code used by the Germans during WWII and the originator of the ideas that led to the invention of the computer, Turing was also an avowed homosexual at a time when such behavior flew in the face of both convention and the law. Leavitt (The Body of Jonah Boyd) writes that the unfailingly logical Turing was so literal minded, he “neither glorified nor anthologized” his homosexuality. Educated at King’s College, Cambridge, and Princeton, Turing produced the landmark paper “On Computable Numbers” in 1937, where he proposed the radical idea that machines would and could “think” for themselves. Despite his Enigma code–breaking prowess during the war, which gave the Allies a crucial advantage, Turing was arrested in 1952 and charged with committing acts of gross indecency with another man.
Turing’s life was full of incident, with his work at Bletchley during the Second World War essential to the Allies war effort and helping turn the tide against the Nazi regime that threatened to engulf Europe.
While this work is well-documented, and growing in both awareness and appreciation all the time, there are many other facts about Turing you may not be so aware of, but that all help show what an interesting, intelligent and lasting legacy he’s had on the world at large.
Saturday 23 June marks the 100 year anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, one of the UK’s finest minds and often referred to as the pioneer of modern computing.
10. Turing’s birthplace in Maida Vale is commemorated with a blue plaque
Turing’s parents originally lived in India, as his father was a member of the Indian Civil Service, but on discovering they were to have a child, they looked to return to the UK as they want their children to grow up in England.
They moved to Maida Vale and it was here that Turing was born on 23 June, 1912, with the site now commemorated by a blue plaque on the house (pictured below).
There is also a plaque on his home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, marking his time in the building.
9. Turing was voted the 21st Greatest Briton of all time
While many have voiced their dismay that Turing is not more widely recognized beyond the IT community, he has often been mentioned within lists attempting to rank those that have had the most impact on the world.
Time Magazine named him one of the most important people of the 20th century in 1999, pointing out the huge impact his work ultimately had on millions of workers around the world.
“The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine,” it said.
Ten years later he also he also featured in the BBC’s Greatest Britons series, where he was rank 21, just behind Alexander Fleming, and some way ahead of internet pioneer Tim Berners Lee who polled at 99.
8. Scores of universities around the world have facilities dedicated to Turing
It’s no surprise that seats of learning around the world have rooms and buildings dedicated to Turing given his huge impact on the world of technology. But the breadth of those commemorating the great man underlines just how revered he remains.
The University of Surrey has a statue of Turing on their main piazza (pictured), the University of Pureto Rico has a lab named after him and Stanford University named the sole lecture room of its mathematics building the Alan Turing Auditorium, to cite just a few.
There are also commemorative rooms in universities in Edinburgh, Keele, Lille, Manchester, Oregon while Istanbul Bilgi University hosts an annual conference event on computation theory called ‘Turing Days’.
7. Turing’s life has been acted out many times
Although Turing isn’t a household name he’s not an unknown figure, with numerous plays, TV shows and books all focusing on his life appearing over the years.
In the 1980s a play featuring Derek Jacobi called Breaking the Code ran in both London and then Broadway in New York while in 1996 a television movie, also featuring Jacobi, was shown on the BBC, and it was nominated for two BAFTA awards.
There are also scores of books on Turing covering numerous aspects of his life, so those wanting to know more about the great man can’t complain about a lack of resources.
6. Gordon Brown issued an official apology over the government’s treatment of Turing
Turing’s conviction for gross indecency for homosexuality barred him from undertaking any more government work – despite his invaluable contribution at Bletchley – and also forced him to undergo chemical castration, which ultimately led to his suicide two years later.
Such horrendous treatment at the hands of the authorities was clearly grossly unfair and in 2009 Liberal Democrat MP John Graham-Cumming started an online petition calling for an official apology from the government.
After thousands of signatures backed this call then prime minister Gordon Brown issued an apology, going at least some way to repairing the damage done by those in power all those years ago.
“While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was, of course, utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him,” he said.
5. Turing chained a mug to his radiator to deter thieves
The hallmark of any genius is the eccentricities that seem to be part and parcel for those with a brain operating on a level far ahead of the rest of the world and so it was with Turing.
Perhaps the most quintessentially British trait he showed was that he kept his own mug chained to the radiator in Hut 8 during his time at Bletchley Park, in order to stop others from taking it and using it themselves.
Other eccentricities he demonstrated included cycling to work with his clothes worn over his pyjamas and even wearing a gas mask to keep his hay fever at bay.
4. A statue of Turing in Manchester has muddled lines of Enigma code
In 2001 a statue was unveiled in Sackville Park, Manchester, in memory of Turing that not only recognised his huge importance to the IT world but also highlighted his horrendous treatment at the hands of the UK establishment due to his homosexuality.
A plaque on the statue calls him a ‘Victim of prejudice’ and the statue itself situated near the city’s gay centre of Canal Street. It also features a motto reading “Founder of Computer Science” along with a sequence of code intended to represent Enigma code: ‘IEKYF RQMSI ADXUO KVKZC GUBJ’.
Enigma machines, however, could not encode a letter as itself. Yet the fourteenth character of the motto and the statue’s code are both the letter ‘u’.
Interestingly, Turing is also shown holding an apple, which has several meanings. Firstly, it is a symbol used to represent forbidden love, while it also references knowledge, in relation to Newton being hit by an apple.
It also has connotations with Turing’s suicide, as he ate a cyanide-laced apple to kill himself.
3. Steve Jobs wished the Apple logo was a homage to Turing
Another interesting aspect of the use of an apple by Turing to commit suicide has meant that the Apple logo – that iconic image of an apple with a small bite taken out – has often been mistaken as a homage to Turing by the firm.
However, the man responsible for the design has confirmed it was an unintentional decision, and only done to make sure people didn’t mistake the apple for a cherry.
Nevertheless, Stephen Fry once recounted a tale on BBC show QI that while Steve Jobs also confirmed it wasn’t an intentional reference to Turing, he added “God, we wish it were”, once again underlining the huge reverence for Turing across the IT industry.
2. Turing once cycled 60 miles to get to school
In 1926 Turing’s family were living in France with young Alan set to start his first day of school in Sherbourne, Dorset. Turing took the ferry to Southampton but on arrival discovered that there were no trains due to the General Strike taking place.
Most 13-year-old boys would have delighted at this turn of events, or terrified perhaps, but Turing, determined to arrive on time, rode a bike 60 miles to Sherbourne, as recounted by Douglas Hofstadter in his book Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern.
Although he doesn’t say where Turing got the bike from.
1. Turing almost qualified for the 1948 UK Olympic marathon team
Not only was Turing a mathematical genius but he was also an exceptional athlete – as the above proves – and he came close to representing the UK at the 1948 Olympics.
He ran a little while working at Bletchley but it was on moving to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, south west London, that he started to take it more seriously, eventually joining the Walton Athletic Club where he won several events, and regularly placed in the top five in races across the UK.
Eventually he turned his abilities to marathon running and peaked with a time of two hours 46 minutes at the AAA Championships in Loughborough, which placed him fifth in the race, with the top three selected to represent the UK at the Olympics in London in 1948.
His time was only 11 minutes slower than that of the eventual winner of the 1948 Olympics marathon and would have placed him 15 if he’d been in the race. What a guy.