Gay Founding Fathers: Alan Turing

January 16, 2014
Gay Founding Fathers: Alan Turing

From email to Amazon to XTube to reading the blog you're on right now, computers have become so essential to our day-to-day that it’s rather mind-boggling to imagine life without them. So, who exactly do we have to thank for this game-changing gadget? Bill Gates? Good guess. Steve Jobs? Think again. The actual man credited with inventing this game-changing gadget is the original tech titan of the 20th century (and this week’s Gay Founding Father), British mathematician Alan Turing.

Born in London in 1912, Turing’s early years appeared to follow the standard narrative of the classic overachiever—academically driven, introverted (a chronic stuttering condition often left him feeling self-conscious), head constantly buried in a book. But by the time he became a teenager, it was clear this smartypants was something special. His remarkable ability for picking up and deciphering advanced mathematical and scientific concepts (even without ever having formally studied them) attracted attention, and upon graduation, he enrolled at the prestigious King’s College at Cambridge University, where he gained first-class honors in mathematics.

His intellectual acuity in top form, Turin’s reputation for being an original thinker soon solidified with the release of a number of high-profile papers, including a 1935 dissertation on the central limit theorem that earned him a fellowship at King’s (practically unheard of for someone so young) and, in 1936, the publication of his seminal work, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (good luck pronouncing that one!), which introduced the concept of a “Turing Machine,” a device that could quickly perform complex computations using algorithms, and laid the foundation for the development of the programmable computer.

But before he would take a byte out of history, Turing would have to help save it first. In 1939, with World War II in full swing, he returned to Britain to join the Code and Cypher School, whose main purpose was to decipher encrypted messages sent back and forth between the Nazis. Decoding these messages was extremely time-consuming, but Turing believed his “Turing Machine” could help with the task—if he had the resources to actually build it. With the full support of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the machine—now called the “Bombe”—was soon a reality and became an essential tool for helping the Allies defeat the Nazi regime.

Ironically, as great as he was at cracking secrets for the British government, Turing did his best not to draw attention to one of his own—he was gay. While today’s Britain is considered progressive when it comes to homosexuality, this wasn’t the case in the 1950s. Sex between men, even in private, was a criminal act. While working in Manchester, 39-year-old Turin met 19-year-old Arnold Murray (go Daddy!), an unemployed local, outside a movie theatre in the winter of 1952. The two embarked on a clandestine affair, but following a burglary of Turin’s apartment by a friend of Murray's, their relationship was brought to the attention of the police. Turin was promptly arrested, had his private life strewn across the front of newspapers, and amidst a paranoid atmosphere of Communist hysteria, had his security clearance revoked indefinitely. While he was ultimately spared a prison sentence, there was a catch: he would have to undergo a government-imposed hormone treatment that would chemically castrate him and “cure” his homosexuality. His career ruined beyond repair and severely depressed, Turin committed suicide in 1953 by eating a cyanide-laced apple. He was 41 years old.

Sixty years after his death, in December 2013, Turin received a royal pardon from Queen Elizabeth, whose life on the throne began the same year Turin took his own. "Dr. Turing deserves to be remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science," said British Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. "A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man."

Want to know more about this remarkable Gay Founding Father? Pick up author David Leavitt’s critically acclaimed biography, The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer, or click the play button above to watch the 1996 made-for-BBC movie “Breaking the Code,” starring Derek Jacobi. Then, tell us what you think about Turing and who else you'd like to see profiled in the comments section below.

Tags: David Leavitt, Gay History, Gay Culture, Brits, gay founding fathers, Alan Turing
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Comments

With the increasing number of professional athletes coming out of the closest, it might be a good tribute to profile David Kopay, the first NFL star to come out in 1975. He's still alive at age 71.

Good idea!

If you want to read a technically descriptive bio of Alan Turing and his genius with computers, it's Biographer Andrew Hodge and his "Turing: the Enigma". He just came out with a centennial revision of his bio in 2012.

Excellent blog post.

I am a high school science teacher, and Turing is one of the scientists that students research in my class for an assignment called "Remembered Genius: Scientists Who Overcame Personal Adversity".

I admire Turing and his life ended tragically and sadly. But because of its end, can you really say he overcame adversity? He seems to have tragically succumbed to it. I don't blame him certainly, but perhaps his tragic story belongs under another category - like the price of ignorance.

In the end, he succumbed, but in the meantime he overcame plenty in order to be what history now knows him for: a genius. He is now celebrated long after his tragic death. I suggest that wide public applause and wide public atonement is the ultimate triumph over adversity. Tragic, yes. But no less a triumph. You could call him a martyr.

I would like to read about Tchicovsky who I have heard was Gay. I think it is important because the Russian state is now demeaning and harassing Gays. Let's shove this under their noses.
Thanks.

Russia, like totalitarian states everywhere, has to target those outside the mainstream. Russia and China are birds of a feather.

As communist states, both harassed gay men.

And if you want true outrage, try the Islamic states.

Actually gays and women were doing well after the Russian revolution. It all changed with with Stalin.

Homosexuality was tolerated under the Islamic/Arab empire at the same time gays were being persecuted by the Christians in Europe.

Not only totalitarian or communist governments have targeted gays. We were also persecuted under capitalism until recently: Nazi Germany, USA, etc.

I haven't found a connection between economic systems or political systems and homophobia.

I want to mention Turing the next time I see or hear someone remarking that all gays need to be rounded up and gassed, shot, creamated, etc. Although, I read wiki and it says that it may NOT have been suicide but carelessness with chemical storage in his flat and he never showed signs of depression post therapy. Regardless, this guy deserved better!

I want to congratulate you for these articles that acknowledge us about important figures of the gay community that contributed in different areas and disciplines through history.

I read The David Copay Story several years ago. It is a great read and was very inspirational to me and I am so grateful to him for having the ballz to come out and to write the book. I'm glad to know that he is doing well.

Fantastic to see Alan Turing being recognised a warrior of the mind that helped save millions,I always get tearful when reading about him ,boiling anger probably as well, two other Brits who moved popular culture along the record producer Jo Meek and Joe orton the playwrite ,both have had enduring influence

Just saw "The Imitation Game", the Turing film with Benedict Cumberbatch. Wow! That his "computer" (he named it after a boyhood crush) was built at all is quite a miracle. Go see this astonishing movie.

even them gay founding fathers were interested in boys then . like in the medievel ages how them kings had all them peasant boys all lined up and sold as slaves for them other royal leaders

Breaking the Code, a documentary available through PBS is a compelling, succinct, well told account of this story, better in its simplicity and representation of the facts than both these excellent works of fiction, or non-fiction plays and films.

I strongly recommend it -- particularly in combination with The Imitation Game.

Turing was the first mathematician to answer the question, "can all problems be solved?"
Turing demonstrated that there were some problems which could not be solved; but if a problem could be solved, then a computer could solve it.

An example of a problem which cannot be solved, that is, could not be said to be true or false, is the following:

"This statement is false."

This is why computers will never be "smarter" than man. Humans can recognize a paradox, computers cannot.

The pardon was all well and good; however, the queen/government should have done something more substantial, i.e., perhaps a scholarship program for up-and-coming exceptional youth. It should have happened and it should have been named after Turing.