Alan Turing, aged 16 in 1928, at Sherborne School in Dorset, southwest England. (AFP)
London, Dec. 24: Alan Turing, the British mathematician and logician regarded as a central figure in the development of the computer but who was subjected to chemical castration and driven to death for “homosexual activity”, has been given a posthumous pardon.
Nearly 60 years after his death, the brilliant scientist and war hero was given the formal pardon by Queen Elizabeth II on Monday for his conviction in 1952 on charges of homosexuality, at the time a criminal offence in Britain.
The pardon was announced by the British justice secretary, Chris Grayling, who had made the request to the Queen.
Grayling said in a statement that Turing, whose most remarkable achievement was helping to develop the machines and algorithms that unscrambled the supposedly impenetrable Enigma code used by the Germans in World War II, “deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science”.
Turing’s code-breaking work at Bletchley Park, the site of the UK’s main decryption establishment and now a heritage attraction, during the World War saved thousands of lives and helped to lay the foundations for modern computing.
In a 1936 research paper, Turing anticipated a computing machine that could perform different tasks by altering its software, rather than its hardware.
He also proposed the now famous Turing test, used to determine artificial intelligence.
In the test, a person asks questions of both a computer and another human — neither of which they can see — to try to determine which is the computer and which is the fellow human. If the computer can fool the person, according to the Turing test, it is deemed intelligent.
In 1952, the logician was convicted of gross indecency after he reported a burglary that he suspected had been carried out by an acquaintance of his gay lover.
Homosexuality was a criminal offence in the UK and remained so until 1967. Turing accepted a form of chemical castration as an alternative to a prison sentence after he pleaded guilty. Unable to work at the communications headquarters as his security clearance was revoked after his conviction and rendered impotent by the injection of female hormones, he took his own life in 1954, just before his 42nd birthday.
His mother and some friends insisted that his death from cyanide poisoning may have been an accident, while others have claimed that it might have been connected to his fascination with Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs after a half-eaten apple was found at his bedside, an echo of a scene in the film where the Wicked Witch poisons an apple.
However, friends, family and former colleagues were united in seeking to right what they considered an historic wrong.
In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology to Turing, calling his treatment “horrifying” and “utterly unfair”.
But David Cameron’s government denied him a pardon last year. A private member’s bill to go farther faltered amid cabinet in-fighting.
At first the government refused to back the bill, citing rules that stipulated that the Queen could be asked to use her royal prerogative of mercy only where the person was innocent of the offence and the pardon was being sought by a family member.
Only four royal pardons had been granted since the end of World War II, a spokesperson for Grayling said.
An online petition urging a pardon received more than 35,000 signatures. The campaign has also received worldwide support from scientists, including cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Cameron said in a statement: “His (Turing’s) 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’.”
The work at Bletchley Park, a secluded country house north of London, only became public knowledge in the 1970s when its role in the war and that played by Turing was revealed. The cryptographers who worked there are credited with helping to shorten World War II by up to two years and they deciphered around 3,000 German military messages a day.
Turing’s team not only cracked the Enigma code but also designed and developed Colossus, one of the first programmable computers. But after the war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the Colossus computers and 200 “Turing bomb” machines to be destroyed to keep them secret from the Soviet Union.
Justice secretary Grayling said last night: “His later life was overshadowed by his conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and which has now been repealedů. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”