During our 2017 May Tour, Bomber Boys of the Royal Air Force & United States Army Air Force, we visit Bletchley Park, a quiet estate northwest of London, where civilians achieved one of the greatest accomplishments of WWII. Brilliant cryptologist Alan Turing and his team of mathematicians toiled in prefabricated wooden bungalows behind the estate home for nearly two years, until finally, in early 1940, they “cracked” the Enigma code, the Nazi’s most complex system of encryption.
Turing’s contribution to WWII was narrated in the December 2014 movie “The Imitation Game” but his life before and after WWII is accomplished and complex.
Prior to working on “code breaking,” Turing studied at King’s College, University of Cambridge. His dissertation was so advanced that he was elected a fellow of King’s College upon his graduation, a designation usually requiring lengthy post-graduate study and publication. Then, at Princeton University, he earned his Ph.D., not the last of the honors awarded him by the Ivy League school.
In the years following WWII, Turing continued developing “computing machinery and intelligence” theories, and in 1950, was the first scientist to explore the issue of artificial intelligence. The notion of a universal machine “capable of computing anything that is computable” – the Turing machine – is regarded as the central concept of our modern computers.
Despite his extraordinary contributions, and incomparable intellect, Turing’s homosexuality was considered illegal in England, and after agreeing to “hormonal therapy” over imprisonment, he died in 1954 from “asphyxia due to cyanide poisoning.” Whether his death was suicide, or the careless or prolonged use of cyanide in his chemical laboratory, is still debated.
In 2004, upon the 50th anniversary of his death, the Princeton University Alumni Weekly named Turing “the 2nd most significant alumnus of Princeton University” (behind James Madison).
In October, 2016, “Turing’s Law” was enacted by the British government, and posthumously pardons thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted for homosexual acts when it was considered a crime. The law also automatically pardons living people who were “convicted of historical sexual offenses who would be innocent of any crime today.”
His wit rivaled Churchill’s… in discussion about intellect, Turing quipped
“We are not interested in the fact that the brain has the consistency of cold porridge.”
During our May Tour, our lodging at the Double Tree Hotel in Cambridge is a short walk along the River Cam to King’s College, where Turing has been honored by this simple marker…