No silver lining for war time genius Turing...

Alan Turing
Alan Turing

AS part of our backing for the campaign to clear the name of Bletchley Park genius Alan Turing, our resident historian John Taylor takes a look at the life of the ‘father of computing’.

BORN in Paddington on June 23, 1912, Alan Mathison Turing displayed early powers of deduction by planting his toy soldiers in the ground to make them grow.

Educated at Sherborne, he studied maths at King’s College Cambridge and his paper ‘On Computable Numbers’ would prove fundamental to the development of modern computing.

His work took him to America but with the prospect of war he returned to Britain and was recruited for code breaking. In consequence he reported for duty at Bletchley Park on September 4, 1939, and for much of the war would be accommodated at the Crown Inn at Shenley Brook End, the story of which was told in ‘The Way We Were,’ March 10, 2011.

In 1940 Britain faced imminent invasion and Alan, aware that in World War One only silver had appreciably increased in value, converted his savings into two silver bars (of a combined value of some £250) loaded then onto an old pram and set off to hide his treasure in the countryside.

Choosing a wood in which to bury one of the bars he next proceeded to a nearby bridge, to sink the other in the muddy bed of the stream. Writing the locations down in code, he then resumed his wartime work, being known at Bletchley Park as ‘the Prof,’ ‘wild as to hair and clothes and conventions.’

Continuing the progress pioneered by the Poles he would be instrumental in developing the ‘bombe,’ which from late 1940 enabled all the messages sent by the Enigma machines of the Luftwaffe to be decoded, and it was also greatly due to his work, initially conducted alone in Hut 8 at Bletchley park, that by mid 1941 the German navy signals were being unravelled.

After the war, not surprisingly Alan tried to retrieve his hidden silver bars and after one failed excursion in 1946 he and a friend began another search, now equipped with a home made metal detector.

However, instead of a third of any proceeds his friend had opted for a flat payment of £5 and this would prove a wise decision since yet again the search was disappointing.

Then in later years while Alan was visiting a friend and his wife at Woburn Sands another excursion was made, for which a commercial metal detector had been acquired.

With their investigations commencing at the bridge, despite remarking that ‘It looks a bit different now’ Alan paddled into the mud but found that the bed of the stream had been concreted over.

They then proceeded to the wood and although the pram was found there was no evidence of the bar.

With the war at an end, and no mention of his wartime achievements allowed, drawing on his recent experience Alan turned his attention to the creation of an electronic computer and in 1950 wrote his famous paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence in Mind,’ in which he proposed the Turing Test to see whether a computer could be ‘intelligent.’

As for his private life, despite having once proposed marriage to a female colleague his sexual preference lay elsewhere and in February 1952 he was arrested for ‘misconduct’ with a Manchester man.

As an alternative to prison he opted for a course of oestrogen injections and continued his scientific work, only to die in June 1954 from poisoning by potassium cyanide, found on a half eaten apple beside him.

Supposedly this was suicide but with shades of the recent past perhaps the real truth will never be known.

> Mr Turing received an official apology from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, but he has still not received a pardon for his ‘crime’ of ‘gross indecency’.

A petition calling for Mr Turing to be pardoned has already been signed by more than 30,000 people.

Lord McNally recently rejected the call in the House of Lords, but the national campaign continues and the Citizen is asking people to back it.

To add your name to the list visit www.epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/23526