5 Interesting Facts About Alan Turing’s Life | The Man Who Broke The Enigma Code
Developed by a German engineer at the end of World War I, the Enigma Machine was a device developed and used to encrypt and, therefore, protect all diplomatic, commercial and military communications from the enemies. Although several types of the Enigma Machine had been created, one of the most complex was surely the one used by the German Navy during World War II under Hitler’s regime. Or, at least, that’s what the Germans thought.
As a matter of fact, the British mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing and his crew at Bletchley Park (the central site for Britain’s codebreakers during World War II) managed to break the Enigma Machine without the Germans knowing, making it possible for Allies to win crucial battles such as the Invasion of Normandy in 1944. Here are five interesting facts about Alan Turing, one of the most unique minds to have walked the earth.
5 Turing’s Inspiration
At the age of 13, Alan Turing attended Sherborne School in the town of Sherborne, Dorset, in south-west England. Throughout his education he continued to show extraordinary skills in the studies he loved, mainly science and mathematics, solving advanced problems without having even studied elementary calculus.
Turing formed a significant friendship with fellow pupil Christopher Morcom, who has been described as Turing’s “first love”. Unfortunately, their relationship was cut short by Morcom’s death from complications of bovine tuberculosis. Turing found the strength to come through the trauma, coping with the extreme pain caused by his loss by concentrating on the topics of science and mathematics that he had always shared with Morcom.
It is certain that the course of the events deeply inspired the boy in his future projects, as explicitly stated by himself in a letter to Morcom’s mother: “I know I must put as much energy if not as much interest into my work as if he were alive, because that is what he would like me to do.”
Three previously unpublished letters from Alan Turing describe the man’s struggle with his sexuality. As we can read in these messages, Turing seemed to be having frequent dreams about him asking his mother if he could go to bed with men, at which his mother replies with a yes.
He also writes about a journey in a French-run camp in Corfu where he expected to “lie in the sun, talk French and modern Greek, and make love, though the sex and nationality… has yet to be decided”. Homosexual acts were considered criminal offences in the United Kingdom at this time, so it was crucial for the mathematician to keep his sexuality a secret.
However, Turing eventually acknowledged a sexual relationship with Arnold Murray, a 19-year-old unemployed man. However, during a police investigation in 1952, both men were charged with gross indecency and Turing was later forced to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido.
3 Father Of The Modern Computer
In 1936, while studying at Princeton University, Alan Turing wrote a paper that became the foundation of computer science. The English mathematician introduced the idea of a device, called the Turing Machine, capable of resolving any problem that could be described by simple instructions.
Turing showed how it was possible to build a Universal Machine that could compute any computable function. Sounds familiar? He had invented the computer! What’s more, his idealised machine possessed greater problem-solving capabilities than any real computer we use nowadays. His theories eventually led him to the invention of an early electronic computer design in 1946, called the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE).
2 Controversial Death
Alan Turing was found dead on 1954, exactly 16 days from his birthday. A later examination of the body showed that he had died of cyanide poisoning. It was speculated that he used the apple that was found half-eaten near his bed to consume the poisonous chemical and cause his own death.
While many people believed it was indeed a suicide, many other, like philosophy professor Jack Copeland and Turing’s mother herself, considered his death as the result of accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes from an experimental device installed in his small room. Furthermore, considering that Turing habitually ate apples before bed, and it was out of the ordinary for him to leave them half-eaten, we cannot rule out the fact it may indeed have been an accidental death.
Another theory from Biographers Andrew Hodges and David Leavitt, have both suggested that Turing was re-enacting a scene from his favourite story, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), where the Wicked Queen immerses her apple in the poisonous brew.
1 Postumous Pardon
In 2009, a petition started to push the British Government to apologise for punishing Turing because he was a homosexual. The petition received more than 30,000 signatures, and it was so successful that the British Prime Minister released a statement where he apologised, describing the treatment of the mathematician as “appalling”.
Another petition was created in 2011, requesting the British Government pardon Turing for his conviction of “gross indecency”. Even though it was discouraged, at first, the petition was eventually brought to the signing of a pardon for Turing’s conviction by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013. The Government stated that Turing deserved to be “remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort” and not for his later criminal conviction.