From e-mail to Amazon to XTube to reading the blog you’re on right now, computers and smartphones have become so essential to our day-to-day lives that it’s rather mind-boggling to imagine life without them. So, who exactly do we have to thank for this game-changing technology? Bill Gates? Good guess, but wrong! Steve Jobs? Think again. The actual man who was “highly influential” in the development of theoretical computer science is Alan Turing, who was not given the credit due to him in his country during his lifetime because of his homosexuality.
Born in London in 1912, Turing’s early years appeared to follow the standard narrative of the classic overachiever. He was an introvert with a chronic stuttering condition that often left him feeling self-conscious yet he was still academically driven. 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.
Turing’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. In 1936, Turing published his seminal work with the title “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (good luck pronouncing that last word!). This paper introduced the concept of a “Turing Machine,” a device that could quickly perform complex computations using algorithms, which laid the foundation for the development of the programmable computer.
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 — his homosexuality. 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 Turing 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 Turing’s apartment by a friend of Murray’s, their relationship was brought to the attention of the police. Turing 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, Turing committed suicide in 1953 by eating a cyanide-laced apple. He was just 41 years old.
Sixty years after his death, in December 2013, Turing received a royal pardon from Queen Elizabeth II, whose life on the throne began the same year Turing 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”