LONDON – Britain has tried to make good by one of its most famous sons, posthumously pardoning Alan Turing for a gay sex conviction which tarnished the brilliant career of the code breaker credited with helping win the war against Nazi Germany and laying the foundation for the computer age.
One author said he hoped Tuesday’s symbolic act would send a message to countries such as India and Russia, where gays can still be prosecuted for expressing their sexuality.
Turing’s contributions to science spanned from computer science to biology, but he’s perhaps best remembered as the architect of the effort to crack the Enigma code, the cipher used by Nazi Germany to secure its military communications. Turing’s groundbreaking work – combined with the effort of cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park and the capture of several Nazi code books – gave the Allies the edge across half the globe, helping them defeat the Italians in the Mediterranean, beat back the Germans in Africa and escape enemy submarines in the Atlantic.
Turing also pioneered the field of computer science, theorizing the existence of a “universal machine” that could be programmed to carry out different task years before the creation of the world’s fully functional electronic computer. Turing ideas matured into a fascination with artificial intelligence and the notion that machines would someday challenge the minds of man. When the war ended, Turing went to work programming the world’s early computers, drawing up – among other things – one of the first computer chess games.
Those accomplishments didn’t save him from arrest and prosecution for the offense of “gross indecency” stemming from his relationship with another man in 1952. Turing was stripped of his security clearance, subjected to monitoring by British authorities, and forced to take estrogen to neutralize his sex drive – a process described by some as chemical castration.
An angry and depressed Turing committed suicide in 1954.
Tuesday’s pardon, which caps years of campaigning by gay rights activists, lawmakers, scientists, and others, was officially granted by Queen Elizabeth II, although in practice such pardons are taken by the government.