How Britain destroyed the father of computer science

One hundred years ago the father of computing was born. As one of the most influential men of the 20th century, Alan Turing’s name should be as well known as Einstein’s, yet rather than being showered with honors in his lifetime, he suffered the abuse of state brutality guided by the prevailing bigotry of that era.

Neurobonkers writes: Radiolab have done a fantastic twenty-minute podcast (MP3) on Alan Turing, the man who cracked the Enigma – arguably the pinnacle moment leading to the victory of the Allies in the Second World War.

While alive, Turing was never thanked or given acknowledgement for his work but instead suffered suffered a tragic, brutal blow in 1952 when he was arrested for homosexuality. The court ordered Turing to be “cured” with massive doses of Estrogen. The untested experiment resulted in Turing suffering a range of humiliating symptoms which if anything, had the opposite of their intended effect, Turing certainly didn’t turn around and decide to stop being homosexual. To put this abuse in context, Estrogen therapy is today used as a part of male-to-female transgender medical procedures (as well as for female contraceptives).

The side effects were not the worst problem from Turing’s perspective. Turing feared that his work would be dismissed by his peers, he was correct. Turing was sacked from his job at GCHQ and barred from discussing his cryptographic work. Turing killed himself two years after his conviction on 8th June 1954.

At the end of last year, the [British] Government was handed a petition for the pardon of Alan Turing with 21,000 signatures. The government declined this February:

“A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times”.

Turing’s treatment serves as a reminder that democracy is not always enlightened and the will of the people can be brutal.

Even now, in a country that recognizes some limited gay rights there is the bizarre spectacle of a popular movement “in defense” of marriage which claims that same-sex marriage threatens the institution of marriage. As a predominantly Republican movement, it makes me wonder whether most Republicans believe that without constitutional protection they are all at risk of becoming homosexuals. I also wonder why those who want to defend marriage are not focusing their attention on a much more obvious threat: divorce.

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