Saturday, December 03, 2011

On a British TV program tonight there was a reference to the genius Alan Turing and the pioneering work he and his team did on constructing the first ever computer to decipher the advanced version of the fiendish Enigma machine, used by the Germans for messages between Hitler and his top brass. An hour or two later, starting on an 800 page social history of the UK between 1951 and 1957, I read that the fate this same winter [1951] of the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing - mastermind behind the cracking of the German Enigma code and arguably the father of the modern computer - was testimony to darker, wholly unreconstructed forces. On the evening of 7th February, just after he had appeared on a radio program about whether machines could be said to think, the police came knocking on his door at this home in Wilmslow. His crime, following a brief liaison with a Manchester youth, was Gross Indecency contrary to Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885.

Turing was duly prosecuted in 1952 and in 1954 he killed himself by eating a poisoned apple. A less than fitting end for someone who, according to the US President, had effectively shortened the war by two years, saving countless lives in the process.

Putting two and two together, some people have suggested that Apple's corporate logo of a piece of fruit with a bite out of it was a tribute to Turing. To which Steve Jobs is reported to have said "No. But I wish it had been."

Fast forward to British TV tonight, where in two programs (male) homosexuality came across as not just normal but virtually obligatory. And that was before we got to Cliff Richard, aged about 20 (then) and 95 (now), in a third program. How the wheel has turned. Or, in the case of the Enigma machine, the wheels.

Another coincidence of the night is somewhat less momentous. The spray-perfume in one of the toilets in my sister's house in Liverpool - round the corner from Penny Lane - is called Seychelles. Where I spent a year as a youth, teaching whatever I could to Creole boys aged 11 to 18. As I recall, they were particularly amused by my attempts at French. But even more so by my bunioned feet and my orteils gros pliés. The little bastards.

And the third and last coincidence of the day is that, having lived very near to it, I'm very familiar with Alan Turing's home town of Wilmslow. Though I hadn't known until tonight that he'd lived there, while working at Manchester University, I guess.

Finally . . . Here's yet another review of The Way, ending with the sentiment that "As The Way ambles along to its sweetly open-ended ending, the viewer had best settle into its vibe and experience the movie at its own pace. You'll be rewarded, and your blood pressure might even drop a notch.

Interesting Postscript: On 8 June 1954, Turing's cleaner found him dead; he had died the previous day. A post-mortem examination established that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. When his body was discovered an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide, it is speculated that this was the means by which a fatal dose was delivered. An inquest determined that he had committed suicide, and he was cremated on 12 June 1954. Turing's mother argued strenuously that the ingestion was accidental, caused by her son's careless storage of laboratory chemicals. Biographer Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing may have killed himself in an ambiguous way quite deliberately, to give his mother some plausible deniability. David Leavitt has suggested that Turing was re-enacting a scene from the 1937 film Snow White, his favourite fairy tale, pointing out that he took "an especially keen pleasure in the scene where the Wicked Witch immerses her apple in the poisonous brew."


ANA said...

Could you tell me the source of this info on Turing? Just before I read your blog I was contemplating buying The Secret Life of Bletchley Park. I'm getting more intrigued.
Many thanks.

Sierra said...

Strange that Turing and Enigma get all the publicity, whilst Tommy Flowers and the Lorenz(Tunny) rarely get a mention.

Colin said...

Hi, Ana.

Well, a bit from Stephen Fry on QI and the rest from Wikipedia. I'd buy the book if I were you.

Hopefully, it gives due weight to Tommy Flowers and his work on decoding the Lorenz . . .

Colossus was the world's first electronic, digital, programmable computer. Colossus and its successors were used by British codebreakers to help read encrypted German messages during World War II. They used thermionic valves (vacuum tubes) to perform the calculations.
Colossus was designed by engineer Tommy Flowers with input from Sidney Broadhurst, William Chandler, Allen Coombs and Harry Fensom at the Post Office Research Station, Dollis Hill to solve a problem posed by mathematician Max Newman at Bletchley Park.

The prototype, Colossus Mark 1, was shown to be working in December 1943 and was operational at Bletchley Park by February 1944.

An improved Colossus Mark 2 first worked on 1 June 1944, just in time for the Normandy Landings. Ten Colossus computers were in use by the end of the war.

The Colossus computers were used to help decipher teleprinter messages which had been encrypted using the Lorenz SZ40/42 machine—British codebreakers referred to encrypted German teleprinter traffic as "Fish" and called the SZ40/42 machine and its traffic "Tunny".

ANA said...