Alan Turing: Breaking Enigma, Breaking the Social Code

A portrait of Alan Turing courtesy of Flickr lilredtank

In 1936, Alan Mathison Turing, a prodigious young mathematician at King’s College, Cambridge, published his work on an “automatic machine,” a machine that could manipulate numbers listed on an infinitely long strip of paper so as to replicate the algorithm behind any computation. In 1950, he published his seminal paper on artificial intelligence which explored a profound question: can machines think?

At a time when “computers” were merely people employed to perform calculations to aid in World War II and computation was only an esoteric discipline of mathematics, Turing was leaps and bounds ahead of the era’s technology. He is now hailed as the founder of computer science and artificial intelligence, the instrumental force behind the Allies’ code-breaking efforts during World War II, and the tragic victim of the homophobic laws of a less enlightened time.

Born on the 23rd of June, 1912 in Paddington, England, Turing was brought up in a strictly upper-middle class background. The rigid expectations of his class, in which scientific pursuits were considered unimportant, stifled his innate curiosity and precocious mind. At the age of 13, he was enrolled at the Sherborne School, a prestigious English public school focused on Classics, where Turing’s natural mathematical and scientific abilities earned little respect. Regardless of this lack of support, Turing excelled in the fields he took an interest in, teaching himself material far in advance of what his peers learned in school. By 16, he had not only understood but commented on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

At Sherborne, Turing met Christopher Morcom, a fellow student who shared Turing’s passion for the sciences. In Morcom, Turing found an intellectual peer, one with whom he could discuss his ideas on relativity or the value of pi(which he had already calculated up to 36 digits for fun). Turing felt an attraction towards Morcom that went far beyond their intellectual companionship and defined his burgeoning identity as a homosexual. When Morcom died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930, two short years since they had met, Turing was devastated. He earnestly wished to believe that Christopher Morcom’s mind survived his death. This grew into a lifelong fascination with the philosophy of mind, which is reflected in his later works on artificial intelligence.

Upon graduation, Turing was accepted into King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics and went on to be accepted as a fellow at the tender age of 22. A year later, he published his groundbreaking paper on automatic machines, analysing how humans follow a set of instructions in order to perform a task and detailing how these instructions can be interpreted similarly by a machine. Such a set of instructions is what is now termed an algorithm. These automatic machines are now known as Universal Turing Machines and form the basis of theoretical computer science. Employing Turing’s revolutionary ideas, the first digital computer, ACE, was built a decade later.

Turing took an interest in the practical applications of mathematics, which was unusual for a pure mathematician like himself. He spent two years at Princeton University, studying Cryptology and building electro-mechanical machines to solve mathematical problems. On his return to England, he joined the British secret cryptanalytic department, known as the Government Code and Cypher School. With the official declaration of war in 1939, Turing was employed full-time at the wartime cryptanalytic department at Bletchley Park, where his revolutionary cryptanalytic techniques made an invaluable contribution to the Allied forces’ efforts.

At Bletchley Park, Turing designed the “Bombe”, an electromechanical device based on the Polish “Bomba” that was used to attempt to decipher intercepted German military and naval messages. These ciphers, generated using the cryptographic machine Enigma, were considered unbreakable. With a further enhancement to the Bombe by mathematician Gordan Welchman, Turing managed to crack the Enigma code in four short months. His efforts aided the Allies in defeating the Nazis at numerous crucial engagements, shortening the war by an estimated two to four years and saving 14-21 million lives. Turing, despite his noted eccentricities like chaining his mug to a radiator pipe and turning up to work in a gas mask, built up a circle of friends at Bletchley Park. This included fellow mathematician Joan Clarke to whom he proposed marriage; however, Turing promptly informed her of his homosexuality and ended the engagement.


The Enigma machine // Flicker, David Perry


Towards the end of the war he focused on understanding electronics in order to develop a system to encrypt spoken telephone conversations. This work led to a position at the National Physics Laboratory, where, in 1946, he designed the first digital stored-program computer named ACE (Automatic Computing Engine). Later, he was appointed as a Reader at the Manchester University mathematics department, where he worked on more abstract mathematical and philosophical concepts like artificial intelligence. His most influential innovation in this field is the Turing Test, proposed in 1950, which was designed to determine whether a particular computer program could be considered intelligent or not. The Turing Test is still considered the benchmark for testing artificial intelligence.

Turing’s talents spanned many fields. In addition to his work in computer science, he had a keen interest in the mathematics of biology. Turing wrote a groundbreaking paper on morphogenesis, the mathematical explanation of how things grow, which specifically analyses why the Fibonacci sequence is seen on numerous plant structures. His theories were confirmed experimentally 60 years after his death. Turing was also an Olympic-level marathon and long-distance runner, who even tried out for the 1948 British Olympics team. Having no time to train professionally, he would often run to work, claiming that it was a welcome relief from the high-stress work he conducted at Bletchley Park.

Turing’s involvement in World War II lay shrouded in secrecy until 1974: not even his closest friends knew of the pivotal role he played in the Enigma code-breaking effort. There was another integral part of his life that remained hidden to most. Although it was accepted in the open-minded university atmosphere, homosexuality was still considered a crime punishable by law elsewhere in England. Yet, in 1952, Turing acknowledged his relationship with a man during a police investigation of a burglary at his home. Not only did he refuse to be contrite about it, he informed the police that he thought “there was a Royal committee sitting to legalise it.” Turing was convicted for gross indecency and was given the choice between imprisonment and hormonal treatment to decrease his libido. He chose the latter.

Being convicted stripped Turing of his security clearance and his job at the Government Communications Headquarters. He was banned from visiting America and was considered a security threat in other countries in light of the looming Cold War. The hormonal treatment resulted in significant psychological trauma: a year of being treated with oestrogen caused breast enlargement and weakening of the body, which was a blow to a passionate athlete like Turing. Despite his ordeal, Turing remained defiant: during his probation, he insisted on holidaying in Norway and Greece, possibly having heard of greater freedom for gay men in those countries. Yet, his good humor about his tragic situation seemed to have finally given in, as he was found dead on 8th June, 1954, having committed suicide by ingesting a fatal dose of cyanide. A half-eaten apple lay next to his body – an eerie reference to his favorite fairy tale, Snow White.

During his day, Turing received none of the recognition he deserved for his accomplishments. His contributions to the World War II war effort were kept hidden under the Official Secrets Act, while his subsequent achievements were marred by his conviction for homosexuality. Yet, without his groundbreaking theories, the development of the digital computer as we know may not have happened at all. Following numerous petitions, he was pardoned for his conviction by the British Government in 2013. Today, Turing is rightfully recognized as the founding father of computer science and artificial intelligence and celebrated as a technological pioneer and an icon for queer scientists worldwide.


Anu Gamage
Staff Writer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *