Over the coming months, we will be looking into some of the great minds that helped shape the engineering and technology industries. This February, as part of LGBT History month, we begin with one great mind, who was integral to the British war effort as a code breaker, but who lost his job at GCHQ, the post-war successor to Bletchley Park, as he was deemed a security risk due to his homosexuality.
Alan Turing’s Contribution to Computing
Born in 1912 in London, Turing’s talent was quickly picked up during his early years of education. During the years 1931 – 1934 Turing studied Mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge where he gained first class honours in the subject.
In 1939, Turing was asked to join the Government Code and Ciphers School, beginning work the day after World War II was declared. It is here that Turing developed the Bombe, a device used to decrypt German messages sent using their Enigma machines. This technological advancement allowed British forces to learn of the German’s plans, and later decryptions proved beneficial to the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic. Because of his work with the Government Turing was awarded an OBE in 1945.
In 1949, Turing became the Deputy Director of the Computing Laboratory at the University of Manchester, focusing on software for the Manchester Mark 1 stored program computer. One year later he published a paper exploring the notion of artificial intelligence called ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’, detailing, amongst other things, the creation of the ‘Turing Test’. This test measured the intelligence of a machine; the machine would be dubbed intelligent if a human could not tell the difference between the responses of a human and the artificially intelligent machine.
Turing’s Legacy and Personal Life
Turing was born into a world which was technologically and culturally different to the one we live in today. He is known for his work in computer science but his most important work was his efforts in code breaking during the war.
Turing was unfortunately stigmatised for his personal life. Turing lived in a time when homosexuality was considered a criminal offence and as such he was prosecuted in 1952 and given a choice between chemical castration or imprisonment. He chose the former and died two years later in a suspected suicide attributed to his treatment as a homosexual. Due to his prosecution, he also had his security privileges removed meaning he could no longer work on projects at the UK Government Communications Headquarters.
As opinions and laws regarding homosexuality have changed over the years, recent governments have openly apologised for Turing’s treatment, the most notable apology coming from Gordon Brown in 2009, describing the treatment of Turing as “appalling”.
In recognition to his life and works, the Turing Award as been given annually since 1966 by the Association for Computing Machinery and is awarded for technical and theoretical contributions to the computing community.
The work Turing undertook, and the teams he worked with, definitely started to open the doors into modern computing and there is no doubt that his natural mathematical ability makes him one the greatest British minds to have lived.
Diversity in the Workplace
The degree of stigmatism which Turing experienced in his lifetime is, thankfully, not presence in the same extreme in today’s workplace. There are a number of diversity organisations set up to address the needs of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals as well as ethnic minorities in the work place to ensure discrimination no longer exists.
Visit the websites featured below to find out more about legislation and practices in the work place.