December 24, 2013 (a Tuesday)

Alan Turing, 29th March 1951. Image supplied by National Physical Laboratory Archive, Science Museum (London, UK).

Alan Turing, 29th March 1951. Image supplied by National Physical Laboratory Archive, Science Museum (London, UK).

Today, Alan Turing, the British mathematician credited with development of the early computer, was finally given a posthumous pardon from Queen Elizabeth II 60 years after being convicted for and chemically castrated for being gay. Homosexuality was a crime in England at the time. You can read a summary of Turing’s arrest and trial here.

The pardon was announced by British justice secretary, Chris Grayling, who had made the request to the Queen. Touring “deserves to be remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science,” Grayling wrote in his plea.

Turing pioneered the field of computer science, conceiving a “universal machine” that could be programmed to carry out different tasks years before the creation of the world’s fully functional electronic computer. His ideas matured into a fascination with artificial intelligence and the notion that machines would someday challenge the minds of man. When the war ended, Turing went to work programing the world’s early computers, drawing up — among other things — one of the first computer chess games.

Turing is perhaps best remembered as the architect of the effort to crack the Enigma code, the cipher used by Nazi Germany to secure its military communications. Turing’s groundbreaking work — combined with the effort of cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park near Oxford and the capture of several Nazi code books — gave the Allies the edge across half the globe, helping them defeat the Italians in the Mediterranean, beat back the Germans in Africa, and escape enemy submarines in the Atlantic.

Royal Pardon of Alan Turing signed by Queen Elizabeth II

Royal Pardon of Alan Turing signed by Queen Elizabeth II

Today, Touring’s contribution to Britain’s success during World War II and our modern computing environment is undisputed. Jean Barker, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, said that “until Turing came along with his wonderful work, our ships were being sunk by the German submarines at [an incredible rate], I hate to say.” Barker admitted that without him, German U-boats would have surely crippled their naval fleet and the country, an island, would have starved. British prime minister David Cameron also recognized Touring’s significance: “His action saved countless lives. He also left a remarkable national legacy through his substantial scientific achievements, often being referred to as the ‘father of modern computing.’

For lawmaker Iain Stewart, one of many who campaigned for the pardon, the act helped right a massive wrong. “He helped preserve our liberty,” Stewart told The Associated Press. “We owed it to him in recognition of what he did for the country — and indeed the free world — that his name should be cleared.”

Others say the pardon doesn’t go far enough. British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “I pay tribute to the government for ensuring Alan Turing has a royal pardon at last but I do think it’s very wrong that other men convicted of exactly the same offense are not even being given an apology, let alone a royal pardon. We’re talking about at least 50,000 other men who were convicted of the same offense, of so-called gross indecency, which is simply a sexual act between men with consent.”

Glyn Hughes, the sculptor of the Alan Turing Memorial in Manchester, England said, “The problem is, of course, if there was a general pardon for men who had been prosecuted for homosexuality, many of them are still alive and they could get compensation.”

Ultimately, Touring’s pardon has come at a time when arguably the contributions of LGBT people can no longer go unrecognized.

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