Alan Turing, the second world war cryptanalyst and pioneer of computer science, has been given a posthumous royal pardon for the 1952 homosexuality conviction that destroyed his life. Turing was chemically castrated and lost his security clearances.
The Queen granted the pardon after a request by Justice Minister Chris Grayling under what is called the ‘Royal Prerogative of Mercy’.
As reported by the BBC, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Sharkey, who wrote a private member's bill calling for a royal pardon in July 2012, said: “This has demonstrated wisdom and compassion. It has recognised a very great British hero and made some amends for the cruelty and injustice with which Turing was treated.”
Turing’s work was part of the code breaking effort at Bletchley Park which played a significant role in the Allied victory over Germany and its allies. It may have shortened the war by two to four years, as Jack Copeland, a philosophy professor at the University of Canterbury, Christ Church New Zealand, writes in an essay the BBC commissioned on the 100th anniversary of Turing’s birth. This had much to do with breaking the German Enigma machine codes, against which Turing marshalled computing machines called ‘Bombes’. These diminished the German U-Boat threat in the North Atlantic.
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Turing also made a breakthrough against a German enciphering machine more sophisticated than Enigma, named ‘Tunny’ by the British. The algorithms used to make inroads on Tunny were incorporated into the making of Tommy Flowers’ Colossus computer. Winston Churchill ordered the ten ‘Colossi’ to be destroyed at the end of the war.
Computer conservationist Tony Sale reconstructed Colossus at Bletchley Park, where it is part of the National Museum of Computing.
Turing’s postwar work took him to the University of Manchester, where he continued pioneering work in computer science. He committed suicide in his home in Wilmslow in 1954, two years after his conviction for gross indecency.
Danny Dresner, a Manchester based security consultant, said:
“Rightly or wrongly I've never been interested in the back story just the remarkable contribution to ending the war and the logic behind the way we work with technology now.
“It seems to me that an alternative universe where Turing lived happily into later life would be benefiting from ... well that's the problem; we lost Turing so we don't know.
“The University of Manchester has such an assured place on the pedestals of history we can only be sure that Turing's genius would have continued to be exploited in the right way.
“Turing pioneered the translation of thought into computing devices -- something that we are marvelling at with 21st century projects that continue the Turing legacy either directly or in spirit. The circumstance of our loss -- it is ours, not his -- is just another own goal for humanity.
“A moment of pride to be in that field; a tear too”, he said.
Postscript 24th January 2014
Fred Piper, founder of the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway College University of London, said: “Turing made an invaluable contribution at Bletchley Park, and to the development of early programmable computing. So, too, did many others. Take [W.T.]Tutte, whom I knew personally. He doesn’t spring to mind in same way, but he made same level of contribution [at Bletchley].But he would never mention it.
“There are two big words that come out of Bletchley Park: Colossus and Enigma. But Colossus was not used to break Enigma, it was used to break the Lorenz cipher. The bombe was used to break Enigma. The average man in the street is likely to say 'Turing broke Enigma using Colossus'. That is not right.
“Turing was, though, a star and he was outstanding. He has a higher profile than the others and while not wanting to ‘demote’ him in any way I would like to raise the profile of those other people too.
“Hopefully, the pardon will be part of a process by which other contributions get to be recognised. The operational management of it, with the distributed nature of the processing, is staggering.
“I’m also amazed that the floodgates have not been opened to get others convicted of then illegal homosexual offences pardoned”.