Britain grants posthumous pardon to war hero and computing pioneer Turing

Much belatedly, Great Britain has attempted to correct a wrong done to computing pioneer Alan Turing.

The country on Tuesday issued a royal pardon to Turing, who was convicted in 1952 of the then-crime of homosexuality. The move comes some 59 years after the death of Turing, a hero of World War II whose efforts to crack the codes used by Nazi Germany arguably helped shorten that war and thereby saved millions of lives.

“Turing deserves to be remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science,” said Chris Grayling, Britain’s Justice Minister. “A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”

As a consequence for his “crime,” Turing was chemically castrated and lost his security clearance. He died two years later from cyanide poisoning under mysterious circumstances. His death was officially declared a suicide but is considered by his biographers, friends and others to have been an accident.

Turing’s work in cyptography helped to turn the tide of the Second World War. He designed a machine to help break the Enigma codes used by the Germans to encrypt everything from reports from generals to the manifest of ships. He personally cracked the version of Enigma that was used to transmit messages to German submarines that were attacking Allied ships in the Atlantic. And he helped crack the code created by a more sophisticated German device that was nicknamed the “Tunny.”

His cracking of the U-boat code helped Allied ships evade attacks and helped ensure the delivery of adequate supplies to Britain during the war. Had that code not been cracked, the D-Day invasion likely would have been delayed — and so to the conclusion of the war, argued Jack Copeland, a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and a Turing expert.

But Turing was also a pioneer in computing. He proposed the famous “Turing test,” which computer scientists have used as a benchmark for artificial intelligence. And his writings and computing designs were so influential on later generations of computer scientists, that he has been called by some the “Father of Computing.”

Turing’s life and work have been attracting renewed interest of late. In addition to the pardon, Turing is the subject of an upcoming movie staring Benedict Cumberbatch called “The Imitation Game.” In 2011, his life was portrayed in a British television movie called “Codebreaker.” And in 2009, Turing eceived — posthumously of course — an official apology from then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who called Turing’s treatment “inhumane.”

Unfortunately, Turing was only one of an estimated 50,000 Britons who were convicted and punished under the homosexuality statute. Although that statute has since been repealed, it influenced the creation of similar statutes throughout the British Empire, many of which are still in place today. And despite the pardon for Turing, Britain is not officially considering similar actions or recompense for others convicted of the homosexuality law, some of whom are still alive. 

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (229 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.