Culture notes

Our shameful treatment of Alan Turing, the man behind the Enigma Code

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

Alan Turing, the man who developed the Enigma code that saved the Allied war effort, was not merely disregarded by his country. A homosexual, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ in 1952 and chemically castrated via forced oestrogen injections. Under unimaginable duress, he committed suicide. That it took until 2009 for the British government to apologise only compounds the scandal.

Turing’s story is told in Codebreaker, a docudrama that combines reenactments of conversations between Turing, played by Ed Stoppard (above), and his psychiatrist (the German Jewish refugee Franz Greenbaum), and interviews with experts on his life and work. One after another, they attest to Turing’s brilliance as the man who created modern computing. Turing was to computers what Galileo and Newton were to physics: someone who ‘had thoughts that nobody else was having’.

If Turing was lonely in his genius, he was less isolated in his sexual orientation. Yet the knowledge that there were others like him didn’t lessen the fear that gripped homosexuals pre-Wolfenden. Unlike many, he thought better of marrying. Joan Clark, the friend he almost wed, attributes Turing’s refusal to do so to his ‘higher self-awareness’, an acknowledgment that his perspicacity extended beyond the quantitative.

One of the film’s interviewees explains that Turing could ‘see further’. How tragic that his precocious vision could not conceive of a Britain where gays would be celebrated rather than hounded.

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  • William Reid Boyd

    You might have done better to read the book. Amongst other gratuitous errors, Turing did not ‘develop’ the Enigma code. Rather he was part of the Bletchley Park team that helped break it.

  • Joshaw

    “a Britain where gays would be celebrated rather than hounded.”

    Celebrated – or just the subject of never ending discussion?

    A bit of true equality wouldn’t go amiss.

  • HJ777

    Turing did not “develop the Enigma code”. For a start, Enigma was a cipher system, not a code, and the Enigma cipher machine was developed by Arthur Scherbius and was further enhanced by the German military.

    Turing was one of, and probably the most brilliant of, the many people who worked on methodology and equipment to work out the daily and individual message settings of the various German communications networks, so that many (but certainly not all) Enigma messages could be deciphered at Bletchley.

  • HJ777

    This trailer is nonsense too.

    It claims that “during his lifetime his achievements went unrecognised”. Certainly his secret war work did (as for all at Bletchley) but he was well known after the war for his work at the National Physical Laboratory on the ACE computer and later at Manchester University working with Newman.

    There is absolutely no connection between his work and the fact that he was later prosecuted for homosexual activity. The police didn’t even know about his war contribution.