By Emma Buchman
Alan Turing. Do you know that name? You should. You’re reading this newspaper because of him. Turing lived during the mid-20th century in England. He was hired by the British military as a lead code breaker during WWII, where he and many other diligent codebreakers broke the “unbreakable” German code Enigma using a machine that Turing developed. According to historians, this breakthrough ended WWII two years early and saved approximately 14 million people. He is responsible for the foundation of the research for artificial intelligence and laid the groundwork for the development of a reprogrammable, intelligent machine. Along with the hard work of those who followed his research, this machine eventually became the computer.
So you might be asking, “If he did all of that, why haven’t I ever heard of him?” Well, it’s because the cracking of the Enigma code was kept a secret by the British government for 50 years. However, you’ll still feel bad for not knowing his name. In 1952 Turing was prosecuted for being a homosexual and ordered by the court to choose between one year of hormone treatments or two years in prison. Turing chose the former so that he could continue working, but the hormones had a lot side effects, including making Turing impotent and causing him to develop gynecomastia (the development of breasts in males due to excessive tissue growth). He then died in 1954 at the age of 41 from cyanide poisoning.
This may seem like the rambling anecdote of a history nerd, but there is a more meaningful reason behind it. Turing is just one member of a very large club of people that made a substantial contribution to the development of mankind but who were not given the credit that they deserved until it was far too late to give it to them. What’s worse is that in spite of the advancements made for the rights of gay men and women, he was not pardoned for his “crime” until 2013, and most of the others who were prosecuted like him (including Oscar Wilde) have not been pardoned at all. While what Turing and other homosexuals did was not a crime, it is just one of many ways that we can respect him as a human being.
Turing is the subject of the recent movie “The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Keira Knightley as his close friend and fellow codebreaker Joan Clark. The film takes one step in recognizing Turing and his fellows for their accomplishments. It is not entirely historically accurate (as one would expect), but it is equipped with writing and a cast and crew that will support Turing on and off of the screen, as we’ve seen from Cumberbatch’s interviews and public statements on Turing.
The film may not be entirely accurate, but it gives us the history we wish had occurred. Near the end of the movie, when Turing has begun his compulsory hormone treatments, he gets a visit from one of his close friends, who is shocked to hear about his sentence and tells him that she will speak to his doctors and lawyers. There is no historical evidence that this visit happened, but does that matter? Much like Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards,” “The Imitation Game” shows what we wished had happened, where Turing receives the comfort and justification that he deserved from one of the people that he valued most in his life.
There are many people who have made great contributions to our world, but who will never have their names known to us. CIA spies, special agents, the good hackers; these are all examples of people who have sacrificed so much for us but remain anonymous. This was true of Turing for too long. We may not be able to know the names of every contributor to world advancement, but we can remember Turing’s name and honor not only his achievements, but those of his successors in human development as well. Similarly, we can remember the over 40,000 people that were also persecuted for being who they were. We can take the first step in all of this, and remember the name Alan Turing.