This week, the Bank of England unveiled its new 50-pound note that features the brilliant World War II codebreaker Alan Turing. The 50-pound note is the highest denomination in circulation and its new design honoring Turing completes the change from paper to polymer currencies that include Winston Churchill on the five-pound note, author Jane Austen on the 10-pound note and artist J. M. W. Turner on the 20-pound note. Turing was selected by more than 250,000 public votes, an effort to atone for the unbelievable cruelty and prejudice against gay people that led Turing to commit suicide.
Turing and Churchill were two of the most important people responsible for the Allied victory in World War II. Churchill prevented England from surrendering to Nazi Germany in the early years of the war when the King of England and some members of parliament recommended capitulation, while Turing broke the Nazi Enigma code, which shortened the war by more than two years and saved millions of lives. The British people rewarded Churchill for his incredible bravery by voting him out of office after the war, and they rewarded Turing by forcing him to take female hormones that led him to suicide in 1954. The extraordinary and brilliant breaking of the Enigma Code was kept secret until 1974 because of national security procedures. After Turing broke the code, the British were able to intercept messages from the German high command to be able to locate the dreaded U-boat submarines and know about battle plans in advance. The Nazis never realized that their code had been broken, so their overwhelming military superiority was repeatedly foiled by the British. Turing’s code-breaking work was so far ahead of the rest of the world and so crucial to British security that it was not released to the United Kingdom National Archives until April 2012, 70 years after it was accomplished and 48 years after he died.
Alan Turing was one of the most brilliant and creative mathematicians of the 20th century. He invented the “Turing Machine” which makes him a father of modern-day computers and one of the inventors of artificial intelligence. After World War II, he designed the ACE, among the first stored-program computers. In 1948 he helped develop the Manchester computers. He was a breakthrough mathematician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, pioneering computer scientist, mathematical biologist, and later in his short life, he became a very good marathon runner.
At age six, his teachers noted that he was exceptionally smart. At age 13, he designed his own scientific experiments and solved advanced math problems that his math teacher couldn’t even understand. At 16, he wrote about and discussed Einstein’s questions about Newton’s laws of motion. At age 21, he was graduated from Cambridge University, with highest honors in mathematics. At age 22, he became one of the youngest men to receive the honor of being elected a fellow at Cambridge because he proved the central limit theorem. At age 23, he presented the theory that led to the world’s first mathematical computation computers called the Universal Turing machine, published advances in mathematics and cryptology and made a multiplier machine. In June 1938, at age 25, he received his PhD from Princeton.
The day after war was declared in 1939, Turing left Cambridge for Bletchley Park, Britain’s intelligence center, where he broke the German’s Enigma Code. An intercepted Enigma message’s English translation could be read by the British command in less than 15 minutes after the Germans had sent it. German U-boats had been sinking many of the merchant ships in convoys from North America loaded with food and essential supplies. With the Enigma code broken, the Allies knew just where most of the U-Boats were, so the convoys could get through. The military advantages gained by breaking the Enigma code probably shortened the war by two or three years and saved more than 20 million lives.
An Outstanding Runner Also
Turing started running after the war while he was in his thirties and in August 1946, at age 33, he won his first race, a three-mile track title in 15:37.8. Averaging five minutes and 12 seconds per mile is a very fast time for a beginner. Later that month, he won a three-mile handicap race in 15:20, the 20th fastest time by a Briton that year. That is pretty impressive for a 33-year-old novice who had never been an athlete. On October 26th, in a five-kilometer race, he was only six seconds behind Alec Olney who represented England in the Olympic 5000 meters two years later. On December 21, he was less than 30 seconds behind Geoff Iden, an Olympic marathon runner in 1952. In April, 1947. he ran 10 miles in 54:43 to beat several former and future Olympians. After just two years of running, and while doing important research on computers and code breaking, he would run 40 miles from his lab at Bletchley Park to London to attend meetings.
He hoped to make the 1948 British Olympic team in the marathon, but was injured before the tryouts. People who start to compete in marathons in their later years are prone to severe injuries. You have to run a lot of very fast miles to be a good marathon runner and it takes years for a person to learn how to take days off. All marathon runners suffer days when they should not run, but it takes lots of injuries to learn when to take off. They compete with their diaries and try to record as many miles as possible. So they get near the end of a week and their legs hurt so much that they can barely walk, but they need to run 20 miles that day to reach 100 miles for that week. They do run the 20 miles, but they run them so slowly that day that they gain nothing and end up with an injury that often takes months to heal.
Turing ran a marathon in a very respectable time that was only 11 minutes slower than the 2 hours and 35 minutes that it took Britain’s Thomas Richards to finish second in the 1948 Olympic marathon. He continued competing until 1950 when another leg injury ended his running career.
Homosexuality Was a Crime in Britain
In 1941, Turing proposed marriage to Joan Clarke, a brilliant mathematician who worked with him decoding German secrets. He told her that he was a homosexual and she still wanted to marry him. However, he changed his mind and did not marry her. In December, 1951, 39-year-old Turing met a 19-year old man named Arnold Murray outside a theater and invited him to lunch, and they started an affair. On January 23, 1952, several articles were stolen from Turing’s home and Murray told Turing that the burglar was a friend of his. Turing called the police. The police came and asked why Turing and Murray were living together and Turing replied that they had a sexual relationship. At that time, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 made homosexuality a criminal act, so they both were charged with the crime of being homosexuals.
Turing’s lawyer convinced him to plead guilty, even though Turing felt that he had done nothing wrong. He was found guilty and given a choice of being put in prison or taking a year of injections of a type of estrogen, a female hormone, to reduce his sexual desire. The criminal conviction caused him to lose his security clearance and his consulting job with the British Government. He also lost his passport to the United States.
Nobody Knew About Turing’s Contribution Until After His Death
When Turing died in 1954, none of his friends knew that he had broken the Enigma code, nor did they know that he was the primary developer of modern computers. Most people believed that computers were developed in the United States.
In 1945, Turing was awarded the very prestigious Order of the British Empire by King George VI for his wartime services, but it was kept secret until after he died. The full story of his code breaking was kept completely secret until 1974, and only then was Turing recognized as the man who won the U-boat war for the Allies during World War II.
In 2009, following an internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated.” In 2012, sixty years after the British government convicted Turing of a criminal act, the House of Lords granted a statutory pardon to Turing for offenses under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. In 2014, Queen Elizabeth II officially pardoned Turing for his “crime” of gross indecency.
A statue of Turing stands at Manchester College where he taught, with the plaque: “Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice”. Before the 2012 Olympics in London, the Olympic Torch was paraded in front of Turing’s statue on his 100th birthday.
Alan Turing, OBE, FRS
June 23, 1912 – June 7, 1954