The following is summarized from the text accompanying the memorial. Turing published “On Computable Numbers” in 1936, “in which he conceived of ‘a universal computing machine’ which would be able to carry out thought processes using numbers and is thus regarded as the father of computer science.” During World War 2, he devised the machines that broke the German naval enigma code, a feat which played a significant part in the Allied victory of that war.
After the war, he joined a team at Manchester University “responsible for the most important breakthroughs in the development of the electronic computer.” He also wrote “a surprisingly readable manual on computer programming.”
When the police were investigating a break-in at his home, he casually mentioned his relationship with another man, which led to his prosecution for homosexuality, illegal at the time in Britain. Because homosexuality was thought to be a security risk due to the potential for blackmail, he was excluded from continuing his work at the university. He was also forced to take hormone injections to “cure” him of his sexuality.
Turing committed suicide at the age of 42 by injecting an apple with cyanide and taking a bite. “His work on artificial intelligence and the mathematical basis of biological forms remains unfinished.” We can only imagine how different modern computer science and computing technology would be if most of the twentieth century had not been characterized by unselfconsciously paranoid homophobia.
The memorial is a very simple statue of him sitting on a park bench with an apple in his hand. The apple obviously invokes his suicide, but also, of course, Sir Isaac Newton and the idea of forbidden sexuality implied in the story of the Garden of Eden.
A biopic called Breaking the Code was made in the 1990s, with Derek Jacobi portraying Turing.
Two very different quotes run through my head this morning after seeing the memorial and thinking about Turing’s life. The first comes from George Whitefield, eighteenth-century Methodist evangelist, on anti-Methodist prejudice in England and America:
Bigotry is as cold as the grave. It knows no remorse.
The second comes from a track, available as an MP3 for free, legal download at Protest Records, by the Cucumbers called “Illegal.”
Is there a circle around those you love?
Where does it start, and why does it end?
Well, what’re you gonna do
when the vast majority of people don’t think like you do?
Is what you want against the law?