The story of Alan Turing

Most of us have probably never heard of Alan Turing but his life is a story of immense ability, influence and, ultimately, persecution and unrealised potential. Turing’s unique skills lay in the world of mathematics and cryptology, laying the foundation for modern computer science and artificial intelligence. He was credited for devising techniques that enabled the breaking of German military code used by their Enigma machines during World War II. It has been suggested that this breakthrough potentially shortened WWII by several years.

One would think this would be deserving of national hero status, giving rise to a life and career of acclaim. Nine years after the end of WWII, Turing killed himself by ingesting cyanide. Why should someone with such obvious skill and success take their own life?

The 1950s was the time of McCarthyism in the United States which directly impacted its western allies. The heightened fears of communism led to accusations being made against people who were simply… different, because difference was feared. Turing was one such different person. He was homosexual which in 1950’s Britain was a criminal offence. His movements were tracked, his associates were monitored, his life was under constant review. He was convicted of a criminal offence pertaining to his homosexuality and accepted hormone treatment in lieu of imprisonment. Turing’s security clearance was removed, his credibility destroyed by the very nation that he had earlier sought to save. Turing himself highlighted the contradiction he saw by noting that whilst he diligently worked to break a code that could bring down Hitler’s regime which was at that time actively sterilizing Jews, he himself had now been sterilised. Turing committed suicide two years later. The British Government issued an apology in 2009.

This is an historical account. An apology cannot change history but we can learn from the events of the past, applying the lessons therein to build a greater future.

I believe Alan Turing’s story presents a very distinct challenge for you and me today…

Who in our own worlds are we deliberately not engaging simply because they are different?

Alan Turing is now celebrated by the scientific community with his name emblazoned upon prestigious awards and academic buildings. Let’s celebrate people today for who they are and the difference they can make not how different they are to us.

Our influence will only ever be as great as the people with whom we’re connecting.


Image credit: chrisdorney / 123RF Stock Photo

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