Alan Turing was a genius and visionary. Even his primary school headmistress said so. His contributions to society were myriad. But bias — as well as a top secret government mission — rendered many blind to his accomplishments.
Born in London in 1912, Alan was a clever, hard-working boy who spent long hours puzzling over complex chess problems. He graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1934 with 1st-class honors in math.
A few years later, while working on a Ph.D. at Princeton University, he conceived of a device that could solve complex math problems faster than anyone — even him. Dubbed the Turing Machine, it foreshadowed the digital computer.
Suddenly, the problems were very real. Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland in 1939, forcing the UK to declare war. This ignited WWII. Turing was recruited to crack the enemy’s secret messaging system, called the Enigma Code, which everyone thought unbreakable.
By late 1940, Turing and his ‘universal computing machine’ had hacked it. Indeed, each time the Germans devised a new communications code, Turing broke it. The genius and his machine shortened WWII by years, saving countless lives.
After the war, Turing devised a method, called the Imitation Game, to determine whether a machine could be taught to be smart, kicking off the development of artificial intelligence. Ace mathematician, code-cracker, war hero, pioneer in both computer science and artificial intelligence — you would think Alan Turing a prime candidate for British knighthood. But bigotry blocked that.
In 1952, it emerged that Alan Turing was, very privately, in a relationship with a man. At the time, homosexuality was illegal in the UK. Turing was charged with “gross indecency,” his security clearance was revoked by the government, and he was barred from continuing his work.
His only choice for avoiding a prison sentence was to accept chemical castration.
On 7 June 1954, Turing was found dead. Ruled a suicide at the time, it may have been due to his accidentally inhaling cyanide fumes while conducting a home experiment.
The full extent of Alan Turing’s work did not come to light until after his death as much of it was top secret. What was known, however, was not celebrated when he lived due to homophobic bias.
Turing’s impact on computer science is now commemorated its the Turing Award. In 2015, The Alan Turing Institute, a centre for research in data science and AI, was created in his name. We are honored to name him a #HistoryHero—one who saved lives and contributed legions but went unsung because he dared to be different. A shout out of Thanks! to Whitney Stewart of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, for nominating him.