Last week I read a terrific book by Simon Singh called The Code Book, which details the history of cryptography from ancient times through the modern (at least up til 1999, when he wrote the book) computer era. A large part of the book concerns Allied efforts to crack the codes created by the Nazi Enigma machines during World War II. I’ll spare you the details, but basically Enigma machines were like fancy typewriters that used complicated internal wiring and settings to obscure the messages that were sent. Because the machines could be reconfigured in a host of ways, Enigma operators could choose from literally billions of different ciphers each time they sent a message.
Cracking the Enigmas required brilliance on a massive scale. Designing a mechanical electronic machine to automate the process of decrypting millions of words of Nazi radio messages was an accomplishment that was nearly unthinkable — until Alan Turing, a shy young British mathematics professor, did exactly that. Not only did Turing’s work lead directly to the invention of the electronic computer, but it also may have been the singular intelligence achievement of the 20th century.
Good thing he didn’t tell the army he was gay.
Or, as his intelligence colleague Jack Good put it:
“Fortunately the authorities did not know Turing was a homosexual. Otherwise we might have lost the war.”
Of course Turing’s luck didn’t last. In 1952 he was arrested for lewd indecency after accidentally admitting to the police that he’d been having sex with another man while his house was being robbed downstairs. Turing was allowed to avoid jail time by agreeing to take a cocktail of drugs aimed at reducing his sex drive. The chemical castration worked like a charm — he killed himself in 1954 at the age of 41.
Anyway, a group of British scientists has organized a petition calling on the government to apologize for its role in ruining the life of one of its shining lights. Obviously he’s dead now, so it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. But still, British people apologize for everything — I once stabbed a British guy and he apologized for getting blood on my knife. The least they could do is say they’re sorry. Only they shouldn’t use the phrase “No hard feelings,” since that’s kind of what they did the first time.
Campaign to win official apology for Alan Turing [Manchester Evening News]