Steve Mitchell

Digital Designer

LGBTQ+ History Month: Alan Turing


As part of this year’s LGBTQI History Month in the UK, mkodo is celebrating the work of Alan Mathison Turing, a British Mathematician and logician who made major contributions to the technology and ideas we use today.

Alan Turing

Most famously Turing was instrumental in breaking the Enigma cipher machine, helping to end the war and save countless lives for his country, a country which would go on to arrest and criminalise him for being gay.

Turing, from Wilmslow in Manchester, studied mathematics at Cambridge University. He graduated in 1934 and was elected a fellowship at Kings College to recognise his research in probability theory, and in 1936 his paper on ‘Computable Numbers applied to the Decision Problem’, a very early example of a repetitive procedure or algorithm, was published and had a profound significance for the emerging science of computing.

After studying for his Ph.D in Mathematical logic Turing joined the Government Code and Cypher School and eventually moved to Bletchley Park.

Working with Polish cryptanalysts, Turing and his team designed a code-breaking machine based on the Polish Bomba machine. The Bomba had succeeded in breaking the Enigma code but relied on knowing German operating procedures. These were being changed too regularly and thus rendering the Bomba obsolete.

Turing’s machine was called Bombe and supplied the Allies with large quantities of military intelligence, decoding upwards of 39,000 encrypted messages per month, rising to 84,000.

Historians estimate that breaking the Enigma code shortened the war by several years and saved as many as two million lives.

At the end of the war, Turing was made an OBE for services to the war, but the extent of what he had achieved was covered by the Official Secrets Act and was not made public. In 1945 Turing started work for the National Physical Laboratory to create an electronic computer, going on to design the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE).

Turing was also the founder of artificial intelligence (AI) and modern cognitive science and proposed the Turing test as a criterion for whether a computer is thinking.

In March 1952 Alan Turing reported a burglary at his home in Wilmslow. When the police arrived, and after thorough questioning, they discovered that Turing was gay. The police immediately arrested him and charged him with gross indecency.

Turing was found guilty, given a criminal record and chemically castrated, he was also banned from working at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and had his heroism during World War 2 scrubbed from all records.

Two years later on June 7th 1954, Alan Turing was found dead at his home from an apparent suicide by cyanide poisoning.

Homosexuality remained illegal in the U.K until 1967, but it wasn’t until 2009 that then prime minister Gordon Brown, on behalf of the government, apologised for how Turing and many thousands of other gay men who were convicted were treated, stating “You deserved so much better, and were treated terribly”.

In 2013 Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a royal pardon, 59 years after his death.

John Graham-Cumming a computer scientist who campaigned for his pardon said

“He was a national treasure, and we hounded him to death.”

It is extremely important Turing is remembered for his work in computer-thinking and the impact his work had on what we know today, the basis of his work on algorithms, AI, machine learning is used in software and hardware globally, and that his work during the war was fundamental in ending it.

But it is equally important to remember that with all his accomplishments it was a Victorian law based on ignorance and fear that will be the last thing he remembered, and history must not erase that either.

There are still countries around the world where homosexuality is illegal, and in some punishable by death. We may think they are thousands of miles away and divided by culture, but it was only 54 years ago we were willing to ruin the life of a hero based on who they loved.

When mkodo moved offices in 2019, we named one of the meeting rooms after Alan Turing, alongside Ada Lovelace, Hedi Lamarr and Nikola Tesla as pioneers of the tech industry we are proud to be a part of.

On 15th July 2019, the Bank of England announced that Alan Turing and his work would be the new face of the £50 note. The note includes a quote from Turing after he built the ‘Mechanical Mind’ computing device:

“This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.”

And he was right.