Alan Turing: The man, the enigma, the greatest icon

A public vote by the show BBC Icons has named Alan Turing as Greatest Person of the 20th Century.

Bletchley Park. Enigma. The Bombe. Terms that can only be synonymous with one man.

Alan Turing – the darling of World War Two codebreaking, and often dubbed the Father of Modern Computing.

The mathematical genius has been back in the headlines, 65 years after his untimely death, thanks to BBC Icons – a month-long quest to find the Greatest Person of the 20th Century.

For those unfamiliar with the BBC Two show – which saw Turing ultimately crowned its winner in the finale on February 5 – it looked closely at the impact and achievements of 28 notable names across seven diverse categories, in the fastest-changing century we’ve seen.

One might be forgiven for wondering how, exactly, sports stars or artists could be compared to leaders, scientists or activists. David Bowie parading as Ziggy Stardust versus Nelson Mandela’s call for an end to apartheid, for example, is a tough equation to compute.

Similarly, how does Turing’s brilliance in unscrambling German code – shortening the War, and saving hundreds more lives – relate to Andy Warhol’s cans of pop-art soup?

Either way, it was refreshing to see such a heartfelt case argued for the misunderstood mastermind, who came by the end of his life in 1954 at the age of 41, with an alleged bite of a poisoned apple.

A side-view of Alan Turing's office in Hut 8, Bletchley Park. A desk lamp lights up an old typewriter on a desk in the corner; Turing's picture is on the corridor wall.
Alan Turing's office in Hut 8, Bletchley Park

Picture: Bureau for Visual Affairs, courtesy of Bletchley Park Trust

With one celebrity each assigned the role of arguing for a particular category, it fell to naturalist and presenter Chris Packham to big-up the scientists.

Nestled together with Turing were Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Tu Youyou (the latter of whom we have to thank for anti-malarials whenever we head somewhere tropical).

Packham’s opening gambit – that the world’s problems are “not going to be solved by politicians or sportsmen or sportswomen or rock stars; they’re going to be solved by scientists” – seemed sensible thus far.

He smoothly packaged up the Turing we’ve come to know well – the Cambridge scholar, obsessive over detail, and a firm believer of “Maths Cures All.”

Referring to Turing’s now-quashed conviction for gross indecency in 1952, Packham lamented:

“When I think about Turing, I’m infused with a sense of guilt. I just feel…we failed him. We failed one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th Century.”

The nasty twist in the tale is familiar to anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge.

Turing, living by now in Manchester and working at the city's University, reported a burglary at his home in January 1952. His new partner, 19-year-old Arnold Murray, admitted that he knew the perpetrator. 

Armed with this information, and seeking justice, Turing relayed it to police. But, during their subsequent investigation, the pair's intimate relationship was uncovered.

The lifesaving genius denied neither his partner nor his sexuality - but, under British law of the time, he and Mr Murray were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the archaic Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.  

The following month, Alan Turing pleaded guilty to "acts of gross indecency." At trial in March 1952, he faced a crippling choice - prison, or chemical castration. 

Rather than be caged up, he opted for the latter; and for the last two-and-a-half years of his life, took hormones that would change Britain's wartime hero beyond recognition. Designed to suppress sex drive, the drugs made him impotent, and caused him to grow breasts. 

As if these physical changes were not enough, Turing was stripped of the security clearance that enabled his cryptography work at GCHQ. No more would that brilliant mind be able to share its revolutionary ideas that, just years before, had saved the nation.

On June 7, 1954, Alan Turing died of cyanide poisoning. He was discovered a day later by his housekeeper. 

A white tin mug chained to a radiator in Alan Turing's office at Bletchley Park

Picture: Bureau for Visual Affairs, courtesy of Bletchley Park Trust

It took more than 60 years for Alan Turing's "convictions" to be completely overturned. A petition to request a pardon, begun in 2009, saw then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologise for the "appalling persecution" he suffered. 

An e-Petition, two years later, was rejected despite it gathering more than 3,400 signatures. It was deemed that Turing's "conviction" should stand, to reflect the laws of Britain at the time. 

Light shone at the end of the tunnel, though, towards the end of 2013. Her Majesty The Queen signed a Royal pardon for Alan Turing on Christmas Eve, that came into immediate effect.

The "Alan Turing Law" is even, now, the unofficial name used when a man's historical conviction for homosexuality is quashed in England and Wales.

These days, Turing is immortalised in the rows of huts at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, where his pioneering wartime work was conducted.

David Kenyon, Research Historian at the iconic museum, gave an insight into the Turing that we do not really get to see.

He said: “He cycled wearing his gas mask. It’s because he had hay fever, and thought the respirator might work…but when it didn’t, he stopped doing it.

“He also chained his mug to the radiator – but given the shortage of crockery at Bletchley, this is perhaps a pragmatic step as well.

“You can look at Alan Turing in two ways. You can think he’s completely crazy, or just think he’s seeking novel solutions to problems.”

Why did David Kenyon think Turing won the BBC Icons accolade? Compared to the likes of Einstein, Mandela and Curie, he’s not quite on the same level of household name. Did the public vote out of sympathy over how the man was treated?

David added: “I’m sure it was a factor. Part of what interests people about Alan Turing is the fact he died at a young age. Had he lived to be a ripe old Cambridge professor, our views on him would probably be different.”

“He was one of those who captured people’s imagination. In an age of self-publicising celebrities, he was a very self-effacing man, and that’s something we see as quite attractive – someone who just quietly got on with his job.”

A part of Turing’s life that often gets brushed under the carpet is his time in charge of Hut 8 at Bletchley. This is where now, as a visitor to the museum, you will find his office neatly labelled; along with a slightly affected tin mug chained to the single radiator behind the desk.

David added: “I don’t think you could fairly describe him as a people person, or a manager particularly.

“When the powers at Bletchley wanted to talk to British Tabulating Machines about building the Bombe, they had Turing’s ideas and they set up a meeting.

“But they didn’t actually send Turing – they sent someone else in his place, because they thought he would confuse everybody.

“They needed someone who would explain Turing’s concept, in a way that people were likely to understand.

“While he was a great genius, he probably wasn’t the best boss in the world…”