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.
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.
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