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Bletchley Park Exhibit Honors Alan Turing
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 03/07/12
Last updated on: 03/07/12
 
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An exhibit entitled "The Life and Works of Alan Turing" opened on March 5, 2012 at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, where the German Enigma code was cracked in World War II. The work done at Bletchley Park was kept secret until the 1970s.

The new exhibit honors mathematician Alan Turing who helped crack the Enigma Code during World War II and pioneered in the development of computer science. In 1954, Turing committed suicide two years after his arrest, conviction, and forced chemical castration for a homosexual encounter.

At the exhibit's opening, television presenter James May said of Turing's work at Bletchley Park, "He almost certainly shortened the war and quite possibly saved the country. Remember in the U-boat war we were within two or three weeks of being starved out of existence and if it hadn't been for the code-breaking activities here led essentially by Turing, who was the pioneer, then we'd have lost and the world would be a different place. So Alan Turing is a hero of the nation, he must be."

The exhibit at Bletchley Park includes rare mathematical papers and personal artifacts donated by the Turing family. It was developed following a public campaign to purchase a rare collection of his mathematical papers for the nation, now known as the Turing-Newman Collaboration Collection.

Members of the Turing family then came forward with some of the mathematician's personal belongings, including a teddy bear called Porgy, to whom he read his lectures, a biography written by his mother, and prize books awarded at school.

The exhibit also includes a letter written to Turing's mother in 1975 by Professor Brian Randell telling her for the first time the significance of Turing's contribution to the war effort and to computing.

The mathematician's sporting prowess is highlighted by tankards awarded by King's College, Cambridge for his rowing, and a set of oars hand-painted with his name.

The exhibit also includes a copy of the British government's 2009 posthumous apology to Alan Turing for his treatment as a gay man.

Also on display is a rebuilt version of Turing's "bombe," an early computer that was crucial to breaking the Enigma code; the display will eventually also include a rebuilt version of Turing's speech-scrambling machine, codenamed Delilah.

Iain Standen of the Bletchley Park Trust said the exhibit gave "long-awaited recognition to the short but brilliant life and legacy of Alan Turing, the father of computing."

At the opening of the exhibit, Turing's nephew Sir John Dermot Turing said it was important for the family that his human side was shown, as well as his mathematical achievements.

This new honor in the centenary of Turing's birth is yet another attempt by the British government to rectify the manifest injustice visited upon Turing. In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology on behalf of the government in which he described Turing's treatment as "horrifying" and "utterly unfair."

Turing, who made inestimable contributions to modern science and mathematics, was recognized for his wartime cryptographic work with an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) in 1946 and elected to the Royal Society at an unusually young age in 1951. But in 1952, when he was deputy director of the Royal Society Computing Laboratory at the University of Manchester, his life was turned upside down.

When he reported the burglary of his home by a working-class young man with whom he was involved, he was arrested and prosecuted for what was then known under British law as "Gross Indecency," a section of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 (also known as the Labouchère Amendment), under which Oscar Wilde had also been charged in 1895.

Turing was offered a stark choice: go to prison or submit to the administration of the hormone estrogen. This procedure was known as "organo-therapy," a form of aversion therapy designed to destroy his sex drive. It was a type of chemical castration.

The administration of the female hormone left Turing impotent. He also developed breasts. Two years after his arrest, and one year after this coerced and barbaric "therapy," Alan Turing used cyanide to kill himself.

Notwithstanding the fact that he may have been the most brilliant scientist of his generation, someone whose work in deciphering the German codes during World War II played a major role in achieving Allied victory, Turing was nevertheless sacrificed to the cold war hysteria over homosexuality.

He was, however, but one of many thousand U.K. citizens who were persecuted in this way. The honors and apologies now bestowed on this gifted man must be seen as in some measure an attempt to rectify a broader injustice.

Prime Minister Brown also recognized that Turing's treatment was by no means unique. As he said in his apology, "Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear of conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 12 years this Government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue."

The Prime Minister's apology may be found here: Gordon Brown.

For more on Alan Turing, see the Alan Turing Home Page maintained by Turing biographer Andrew Hodges.

In the video below, from July 2011, Queen Elizabeth II pays tribute to the codebreakers of Bletchley Park.

 
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