Alan Turing — an enigma after fifty yearsAlan Turing was the chief scientific figure in the British codebreaking effort in the Second World War, making a crucial contribution to breaking the Enigma ciphers. He was also the person who got the idea of the computer from an abstruse problem in mathematical logic, and did his best to bring about the IT revolution with his own hands. And he was a gay man who lived in Manchester for his last six years, and would have revelled in Europride.
Alan Turing was only 41 when he died. In all he did he was ahead of his time. When very young at Cambridge in the 1930s, he saw his theory of 'computable numbers' and with it the theory of today's computers. The Second World War came in one way as an interruption to this theoretical work, absorbing him totally in the Enigma and other ciphers. But in another sense it fulfilled his work by providing the electronic engineering to make his computer a practical project. In continuing his work in founding computer science, Turing went to the National Physical Laboratory, London, until 1948, and then switched impatiently to Manchester. It was here that he formulated the Turing Test, famous as a materialist and atheistic exposition of how human intelligence would one day be rivalled by computers, based on his theory of computability. Less famous were his ideas in mathematical biology and physics, decades ahead of their time.
Time did not work well for Alan Turing, and nor did his social space, with culture clashes between pure science, engineering, and philosophy; between war work and intellectual life; and in trying to be a honest gay man when sex was illegal. These conflicts made him often at odds with others, and so did his personality, awkward, uncompromising, and manic-depressive. Informal, rowing or running, in shorts and no tie, he was a hippy misplaced in the 1930s (though serious enough about running to become a leading marathon runner by 1948). 'Phoney' was his favourite term of abuse, along with 'Salesman, charlatan, politician.' But there was an obvious impossibility about this demand for honesty, when he was so wrapped up in silences of all kinds. The sheer incommunicable difficulty of computers and cryptography and mathematics was bad enough, but he had the deepest official secrecy, and his taboo sexuality, laid on top.
All these factors made him a loner. At King's College, Cambridge, his individualism could thrive, with his work in mathematical logic, the work of a complete outsider, coming to fruition in 1936. His interest in ciphers also began as an individualist, until the looming war induced him to offer his services to the Government in 1938. He was the first British scientific figure to work on the Enigma ciphers, which had defeated the language-based codebreakers of the First World War. The Polish mathematicians were ahead, but the British 'super-Bombe' codebreaking machine, built in 1940, was based on Turing's logical brainwave. He was on his own in tackling the most difficult Enigma ciphers, as used by U-boats; we know now that his determination to crack them ran against a prevailing defeatism; we know that he saw it as a personal challenge, to do it because no-one else was trying. He succeeded: and beyond this, he recruited and led other mathematicians with a new statistical theory of rational guessing. His leading status meant he was sent by ship to New York at the height of the battle of the Atlantic, as the technical liaison with American cryptographers. Alan Turing emerged in 1945 as one person who knew the future of computation, but no-one else knew he knew. He could never reveal his own experience when trying to get computers built, and this was one reason why he was unsuccessful in practice.
He was not completely on his own with his sexuality. At King's it could be talked about, and more. He had some boyfriends, though not a major affair. But even there, he had an individuality that no-one could share: the young death at school of the boy he had fallen in love with, and the way that this trauma had done much to inspire his scientific life. Nor did Alan Turing fit into the aesthetic Bloomsbury world favoured in King's. The war took him out of this upper-class shell, just as it shook up whole population. It gave him the chance of a marriage of convenience which many others would have taken; he declined it. Thus it obliged him to define his identity more positively. Liberation and modernity were in the air, and he went with the future. It was probably in 1942, while on his mission to the United States, that he discovered more democratic kinds of sexual opportunity. After the war he had a boyfriend called Neville, a Geordie lad at Cambridge.
On the Oxford Road, Manchester, in December 1951, he made a fateful 'pick-up', as he described it to the police, when arrested on the day George VI died. His whole attitude was that such laws were outdated and ridiculous, and he told the police, wrongly, that he thought there was a Royal Commission sitting to legalise it. Alan Turing breathed the air of modernity, but as usual he was premature by decades and had to suffer the ancien régime.
As a boyfriend Alan Turing had his defects, but he did have that GSOH now always sought in personal advertisements.
Turing believes machines thinkhe wrote to a gay friend, playing on the status he enjoyed having as a God-denying 'heretic' for proposing Artificial Intelligence. His famous Turing Test proposed in 1950 was, in fact, a sort of Turing Trial, and such anticipated the real courtroom drama that, perhaps, he guessed might one day happen.
He was humorous and open in the Manchester computer laboratory about the forthcoming trial, unfazed by its laddish ambience to a degree that was remarkable given that the affair was no romance and showed him as a twit as well as a victim. But then Alan Turing was showing more conscious resistance, in the face of a more consciously persecuting state. In this he followed a wave of new gay consciousness and literature, which he read, recommending André Gide. He himself started to write a short story modelled on Angus Wilson's, of which only the first pages survive. As for the outcome of the trial, where he unapologetically pleaded guilty, no sense of humour was shown to him, unless one counts the black humour of an FRS being treated with scientific 'Organotherapy': female hormones injected in a vain attempt to erase his interest in sex.
This talk was written for a two audiences: the Imperial War Museum and Europride. Here they merge: the taboo themes of sex and war come together. For although the pick-up and its discovery were classics of the 1950s genre, Alan Turing's situation was unique. It was almost the worst thing that could have happened for a British government dependent on American trust. Vetting, lightly applied in the war, had changed after 1948, when 'perversion' became a totem-pole of American 'security' paranoia. Alan Turing was stopped from the work for GCHQ he had done since 1948. Even if he had argued that he had stood up to blackmail, as indeed he had, he could hardly deny that as a gay man it was his habit to mix in unpredictable social milieux, utterly the wrong sets. Alan Turing par excellence always did his own thing.
Alan Turing's gay pride had a definite Euro-component. It seems that he heard about how a gay movement had begun in Scandinavia, and in the summer of 1952 he escaped from the English prison to Norway. In spring 1953 a young man whom he had chatted up in Bergen turned up in Newcastle hoping to stay with him, and was forthwith intercepted by police — the 'poor sweeties' as Turing called them. In summer 1953, it was escape to Europe again, this time arriving back with a list of contacts he had made in Paris and Athens (a list that was destroyed in the 1970s at, it so happened, the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston).
Alan Turing was defiant in continuing both his exploratory gay life and his new ideas in scientific work; he never seemed to buckle, and there has always rightly been resistance to any easy assumption that his death in 1954 was suicide. He would have been aware of as anyone else of the weary cultural tradition of Oscar Wilde, of the Symphonie Pathétique, and reluctant to reinforce it. But even now, youth suicide is still a depressing reality, and almost certainly that was his reality too. He used potassium cyanide and a symbolic apple, contrived to look like a careless chemical accident, and so left open for anyone to form their own judgment.
We don't know what happened. Cryptic jokes in his last postcards, wrapped up in God-teasing fun, suggest that the issue was his yen for rule-breaking 'free association.' Was he being stopped from going abroad again? If the state wanted to assert itself seriously, as it might well have done in the climate of 1954, he might indeed have felt shattered by it. Duty and freedom; honesty and secrecy; the war of the past, and the spirit of the future, were in complete contradiction. Above all he was completely isolated: no-one knew all his worlds, certainly not his Jungian psychoanalyst.
I have emphasised moral conflict rather than the questions of who was cleverest, who was first, that are usually asked in science. But in fact these moral questions are, thanks to the breadth of Alan Turing's work, connected with scientific ones. He himself placed the phenomena of initiative and originality, the appearances of will and choice, which seem so unlike anything done by computers, at the heart of the question of 'intelligence'. It is a paradox that his own life was the least computer-like that could be imagined, both original and wilful to a degree, and possessing an integrity that was nothing to do with cleverness.
The Wolfenden Committee was set up in 1954, since when, by desperately slow steps, there has at least been a cessation of hostilities from the British state. Everyone called Alan Turing naive, but in the long run, that self-affirming naiveté, as since expressed by thouands of ordinary people, has been the lasting and vital factor. His openness anticipated the liberationist change of the 1970s, and a simple choice for same-sex intertwining is now seen as a European human right; the problem is the American religious right. Fifty years later, Alan Turing's story is still full of life.