Home News Alan Turing is the BBC’s 20th Century Icon

Alan Turing is the BBC’s 20th Century Icon

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Things were simpler in the days of typewriters, carbon paper and tuppenny stamps.....
Image Mike Evans

As a great admirer of Alan Turing, I was delighted to hear that he has been named the BBC’s 20th Century Icon — ahead of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Ernest Shackleton, David Bowie, Muhammed Ali and Pablo Picasso.

I won’t enter into a discussion on the composition of this list except to say that I question the presence of Ali, Bowie and, to some extent, Shackleton and Picasso. On the other hand, King, Mandela and Turing definitely have their place.

Turing was a brilliant mathematician who, through his codebreaking diligence at Bletchley Park, had a profound effect on the conduct of the second world war. There is a good argument to support the premise that his work helped to shorten the war by two years.

Of course, this is just one aspect of Turing’s legacy. He is also the father of modern computing. Every time we glance at our smartphone or smartwatch we should be asking ourselves whether these devices would have existed without the contribution to science of this unassuming and much maligned Cambridge graduate.

Bletchley Park was a state secret until the 1970s. Codebreaking work at Bletchley, predicated on Turing's genius, helped shorten the second world war.
Bletchley Park was a state secret until the 1970s. Codebreaking work at Bletchley, predicated on Turing’s genius, helped shorten the second world war. Image Mike Evans

Indecency

I believe we are all familiar with the Turing story: A lonely, autistic, gay (although that word would not have been used at the time) genius who fell foul of the inhuman indecency laws of the time, who was chemically castrated by court order and died in very suspicious circumstance having bitten an apple laced with cyanide.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any stretch of the imagination, but I cannot help wondering if his death was the suicide that has been claimed.

At the height of the Cold War and in the light of the subsequent unmasking of homosexual traitors such as Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, the security services must have been highly concerned that such an “unreliable individual” was in possession of so much classified information.

Bletchley Park itself wasn’t declassified until 20 years after Turing’s premature death. In the early fifties, the Western allies were determined to hide the full extent of Bletchley’s success from the new Soviet enemy. Homosexuals in possession of such secrets must have been highly suspect, primarily because of the risk of blackmail.

Overshadowed

For many years, Turing’s genius was overshadowed by his sexuality (just as was Oscar Wilde’s) but it is fitting that this great man received a Royal Pardon in 2013 and even more appropriate that he is now seen as a suitable candidate for a person of the century award.

On February 5 Turing won the BBC’s public vote. The success was entirely worthy and my regard for the public’s perception has just gone up a notch or two. A popular vote could just have easily have thrown up some half-baked modern celebrity from an Australian jungle who will be forgotten in eight years, never mind eighty. Turing has his place in history and will be remembered in the same way that we think of Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, or Charles Darwin

Read Mike’s account of a visit to Bletchley Park

8 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with John above, an excellent choice, and a exceptionally gifted individual. Blighted only by an early demise – if he had lived longer who knows what other discoveries he could have made.

  2. Mike, just for the record there are no jungles in Australia but we certainly have more than our fair share of half-baked celebrities.
    Anyway the choice of Alan Turing is very enlightened and almost brave given that we live,as you say,in an age when half-baked and in some cases half-mad celebrities are revered and lauded at every turn.

  3. Whilst I don’t question the final choice, Turing is indeed a hero, I do question the right of the BBC to represent a balanced playing field when it comes to 20th century icons.

    It is perhaps the most scurrilous mouthpiece of that century, and continues to maintain that position to date.

    We are indeed lucky that it wasn’t Peter Andre. Oh no, that would be ITV.

    Turing is still relevant today, since no machine has yet passed his eponymous test.

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